Failing Forgiveness

Recently, I deeply hurt a dear family member. My well rehearsed self-defensiveness easily shifts into excuses and rationalization: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” A reflexive, limp, “I’m sorry!” “Here’s what I really meant…” In the back of my mind I also sprinkle in a good dose of “Oh, get over it!” “You’re too thin-skinned.” “You misinterpreted what I meant.”

I easily nurse grudges or smugly assert my innocence, all with a heavy dose of moral superiority. “Me? Why I would never willingly hurt anyone!” This has been my default position for most of my 65 years.

And, it doesn’t work! In fact, it isolates and hardens us. Ultimately, it turns us bitter — the sort of arrogant curmudgeons no one wants to be around. Even we discover we are not in very good company when we increasingly find ourselves alone.

Coincidental to my recent family incident the University of Minnesota was going through a major publicity nightmare and scandal. The Athletic Director had been forced to resign after sexually harassing two colleagues at a mid-summer gathering of top university administrators. Yes, alcohol was involved. Yes, his “excuse” was inept. Yes his “apology” was predictably lame.

Apologies must be about the person who has been hurt, not about protecting our backsides or rehabilitating our reputations! We concoct an amazing assortment of avoidance strategies which are really more about self-forgiveness. According to a really fine op-ed in the Star Tribune about the dismal response by Mr Teague and University leadership, such self-defensiveness sabotages any hope for recovery or rehabilitation.

James E. Lukaszewski’s op-ed convincingly describes the essential pieces of an effective apology:

  • Regret — an explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
  • Responsibility — an unconditional declarative acceptance and recognition that my wrongful behavior and acknowledgment that there is no excuse for it.
  • Restitution — an offer of help or assistance to the person I have hurt, followed up by action beyond “I’m sorry,” and conduct that takes responsibility to make the situation right.
  • Repentance — explicit acknowledgment that my behavior caused pain and suffering for which I am genuinely sorry; language that recognizes that I cause serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage.
  • Direct request for forgiveness — “I was wrong, I hurt you and I ask you to forgive me.”

Reading these words admonishing the Athletic Director and University felt like red-hot coals being heaped on my head. Despite my self-righteous efforts to keep the need for an effective apology theoretical and about others, I felt exposed and incriminated.

My gut was confirming what Lukaszewski claimed.  Admitting that I have done something hurtful and requesting forgiveness is damn hard! Maybe that’s why it is so rarely done, at least with sincerity and effectiveness. Though 65 years of moral evasiveness have taught me the same truth, the hottest coal of all was his final admonition: “Skip even one step, and you simply fail.”

You fail! Not just in this instance. Not just with this family member, neighbor, colleague. We fail — as human beings, the kind of people others want to be around, the sort of person I’d want to be with when I’m all alone!

__________________

The August 10, 2015 op-ed in the Star Tribune is available [here]. In his essay, James E. Lukaszewski credits his source as The Five Languages of Apology, by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.

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