Home > Communication, Family, Learning, Love > No Time for Unforgiveness

No Time for Unforgiveness

We were ten miles outside of Eugene when my sister Rache and her boyfriend broke the bad news.

“We invited Aunt Rosemarie.”

“Pull the car over,” I commanded immediately.

“You can’t walk back to Eugene! We’re too far away!”

“I can walk back to Eugene, and I will, thanks.”

They refused to pull over, so I grumbled and growled for the next several minutes of our drive up to Portland. “You’re going to regret it. Seriously, you’re not even gonna be able to talk because she’s gonna be too busy talking about how Mom stole her precious silver hairbrush when they were kids. She’s going to conveniently not mention that it was for a slumber party, and Mom returned it the next day. And as you sit and try to escape that terrible, awkward conversation about ridiculous events that transpired between kids decades ago, I am going to laugh at you because you did it to yourself.

Nick was sure I was exaggerating. He soon discovered I wasn’t. As I watched him conversing with my aunt from a distance, I could see his discomfort rising by the second. His eyes screamed “help me!” even while his mouth remained locked in a polite grin.

Later, he’d say, “You were right.” He was astonished how long someone could hold on to such lingering antagonism over something so inconsequential. I might have been, too, if my childhood weren’t shaped by that rage and unyielding, unrepentant unforgiveness.

Later that same day, my aunt cornered me. “Don’t you want to spend time with me?”

“No, I really don’t,” I said matter of factly. “Our only connection is my mom, who’s given her all to raise me and whom you’re intent on trashing for things that happened ages ago. So, no, I’m not interested.”

“The things your mom did to the family!” she howled.

“You don’t do things to ‘the family’ unless you’re the Mafia,” I replied, before wandering off for quiet time with my loving, forgiving friend Jane.

My mom stressed forgiveness. She got a kick out of my snappy retorts when I was in high school, but if I ever seemed like I was earnestly withholding forgiveness, she’d grow quiet and sad. “You really hurt yourself when you do that, honey. And people do stupid things that they’d undo if they could. There’s really no good to come from holding on to that.”

Her eyes always looked into the past when she spoke, so it was clear she was remembering being unforgiven. Still, she would never talk about what she did to earn her family’s ire. I knew it had to do with more than a hairbrush, and her vocal, early rejection of Mormonism, but I didn’t want to press the painful point with her.

Rache learned Mom’s great and tragic secret from our brother last week. This was the one she perceived was her gravest misdeed against her family, and the one her own mom most likely recalled when she told my mom she deserved all the misfortune that came her way.

My mom was watching her brother when he sustained a life-altering injury. He’d already been challenging to raise, but the injury made things all the more difficult.

They were children. But she was there, and she was responsible–in the court of her mother’s opinion (as I witnessed though I didn’t understand its source), and later her sister’s–a responsibility that weighed heavy on her heart until the day she died.

I’ve been mulling this over for the last week and a half.

I’ve been wishing I could tell my mom that I forgive her, not that forgiveness should be required in the case of youthful or even adult accidents. For acts of abuse in my childhood, she asked me for forgiveness dozens of times when I was in college and law school. I’d laugh awkwardly and say, “What’s done is done. I understand how terrible and stressful things were for you. I don’t really think I need to forgive you for any of those things.”

How much would it have cost me to say “I forgive you”? How much would her heart have been uplifted to hear, for once, that she was forgiven?

I wish I could go back in time and say these words now, but I’m not going to waste a lot of time on that wishing.

Because that’s all it is: wasting time.

The past cannot be changed.


But memories like this can sure be savored

In light of these revelations, I’ve been thinking about things I’ve done wrong. There have been so many. Every single day, there are so many.

Regret itself does no good. Regret alone changes nothing. Change comes exclusively from looking at what was done unskillfully, and choosing to do it better next time. Nurturing aching, eternal regret takes away my time and energy from believing next time can and will be better, and from my actively striving to make it so.

I am so not interested.

To whomever has hurt me and those I love, I forgive you. My mom was right that forgiveness heals, and I yearn to be an active participant in healing the world that is today. I want my son, bless his beautiful heart, to continue forgiving freely, and to know that it is right to do so, though sometimes, for repeated transgressions, forgiveness must be granted while walking away from the forgiven.

To whomever I have hurt, I apologize.

To whomever has forgiven me, most especially my siblings, I thank you.

All these years later, y'all remain my anchor.

All these years later, y’all remain my anchor

To whomever has not forgiven me, I understand, but though I will apologize, I will not waste time chasing forgiveness.

The past is done. There is no action I can take to change it. I would much rather focus on the wonder of this moment, and all the possibilities the future holds if met with a willingness to forgive–myself and others–and to constantly strive to do better next time.

It pained my mom that my siblings and I didn’t consider her family our own.

She would be glad to know her lessons in forgiveness finally took, and gladder still to know I’ve befriended my cousins. I’m even Facebook friends with one of her brothers.

When I received his friend request not so long ago, I struggled with whether to accept it. What would I be inviting in if I accepted? I wasn’t sure, but I was sure I wanted to live in a way that would make my mom proud. So I took a shot, and very little has changed as a result of it.

Very little, that is, but the sense my mom’s light shines brighter upon me with each step I take toward living with heart wide open.

The light in her eyes is now the light in my heart

The light in her eyes is now the light in my heart

  1. Katy
    August 8, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    I always say it, but I love your posts about your mom. She’s taught you so much and keeps teaching you every day she’s gone. Forgiveness isn’t for the other person, but for the one doing the forgiving. You get that. You are too dear a heart told hold on to resentments. Thank you for showing me that gift yet again. Lovely words, lovely heart. Xo

    • August 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      I wish I could’ve gotten it a little bit earlier, but truly, it’s better late than never! And speaking of lovely hearts? I sure love yours. ♥

    • Running from Hell with El
      August 8, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Amen to what Katy wrote! Love you both.

  2. August 8, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I love you. And I think I’ve said this before, your mom is totally proud of you. “My mom’s light shines brighter upon me with each step I take toward living with heart wide open.” Truer words have never been written.

  3. August 8, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Wonderful lesson.

    My sister-in-law is like your aunt. She recently complained that my husband got more allowance when they were kids. She’s 60.

    • August 8, 2013 at 8:51 pm

      Oy! That reminds me of a conversation with my BIL a few months after my mom died. I was griping about Rosemarie, and Nick said something like, “OIC.* You’re planning on shaking your fist at the past and repeating it at the same time, huh?” Jarring words, those!

      * The way he said it, it was definitely caps lock this. 🙂

      • August 9, 2013 at 5:07 am

        Family — a blessing and a curse!

      • August 9, 2013 at 12:15 pm

        Holy shit I never realized Nick was like a freaking Jedi mind trick master. 😀

      • August 10, 2013 at 8:10 am

        Mack, he 100% is! It’s awesome how he steps up to bat when I say or do something ridiculous and, smiling, points me a better direction. He’s been doing that since he was SIXTEEN. Dude’s unbelievable. 😀

  4. August 8, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    This sort of reminds me of the time leading up to my grandfather’s death. He could be a …difficult…man. Not so much to us young’uns, but my mom, aunts, and uncles. An aunt asked about the religious ramifications of forgiveness on FB one day. They’re…some type of Christian. When it’s convenient. Anyway, basically the Bible says that if you don’t forgive, God will not forgive you (paraphrasing), and the question was whether the forgiveness had to be asked for. Now, as you know I’ve gotten away from the whole Christianity thing, and as a consequence in my family it seems I’m not often listened to because my answers aren’t exactly cut and dry, but my response was to say that you forgive not for anyone but yourself. You let go of all the hurt because you recognize that it’s in the past and there’s nothing you can do about it now, because you recognize that it is hurting your present and future by holding onto it. Not sure it sunk in, but hey can’t blame a guy for trying, right?

    • August 8, 2013 at 8:52 pm

      I love your answer, and I love that you gave it a shot. There’s no telling what impact it might have down the road!

  5. August 8, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    Heartwarming truth. Thank you.

  6. August 9, 2013 at 3:08 am

    This is a powerful and important post, Deb. I struggle still to forgive my mom. I struggle especially now as I write a memoir. I don’t know the degree to which portraying her accurately and forgive go together. It’s so much easier with my father. Sure, he was in the Mafia, but he’s been gone for so long, and was, I believe, the better of my two parents. My mother’s religious extremism still gets to me. At any rate, loved this post!
    Hugs from Ecuador,

    • August 10, 2013 at 8:13 am

      For me, forgiveness is like mourning. It goes through ebbs and tides. I can go through months where I’m full of love and light, and then I’ll go through a rough patch where I think, “They don’t deserve it! Jerks!” I never feel half as good when I’m unforgiving. For me, that’s the guide that keeps me moving back to forgiveness, even if sometimes it’s more of a struggle than others.

      I wish you all the best in your journeys, through forgiveness, Ecuador, and otherwise! ♥

  7. August 9, 2013 at 4:12 am

    As always, I learn so much from reading about your relationship with your mother. My relationship with forgiveness is much different I think, though I try hard not to live with my past or my past hurt I also find it very difficult to simply offer forgiveness to those who feel no remorse for their actions. Perhaps it is simply the language, I don’t know.

    This was a compelling read, important and provoking. I love you.

    • August 10, 2013 at 8:20 am

      Totally understood. I actually went through a much deeper accounting of my learning forgiveness in a June 2011 post, which was (I believe) before our paths crossed: An abridged history of my hate. It was really, really hard learning to forgive my dad, but it paved the way for other forgiveness . . . including forgiving myself. I don’t think of it as something done for another person anymore, but as something done for oneself, because the benefit to oneself is tremendous. Love you. ♥

  8. August 9, 2013 at 5:38 am

    This is really beautiful. Families are such a touchy subject. There is so much baggage. I can see it happening already in our generation, with my brothers and mother, and the divides that are starting to happen. I have always laughed that I have a horrible memory, and any major detailed feelings of anything I pretty much gloss over now. I do miss not knowing some things but then again, I don’t get bogged down with long-term blame and finger-pointing that others do. Just try very hard to move on from it….thanks so much for your thoughtful post Deb…

    • August 10, 2013 at 8:28 am

      There are things I wish I knew as well, but sometimes I think it’s a blessing to have only glimpses into the overall picture. Because of my career trajectory, I’ve moved from frequently ruminating over the past (beginning of my career) to focusing on the present and the future (now). Now I feel like it’s good to assess what went well and didn’t go well, exclusively for the purpose of figuring out how to do it better next time. Like you indicate, that translates to benefit from bad experiences, whereas finger-pointing and blaming leave us more likely to be stuck in the unchangeable past. No, thanks!

  9. August 9, 2013 at 5:55 am

    I had to post because you hit the nail on the head with this one. Family for me is so complicated. My childhood was taxing to say the least and I believe my mom could have done things differently but I choose to let it go. I love Mom and am thankful for her but still at times wonder if she knows what she is doing with her kids to this day. I again choose to let it go and bask in the words “what’s up Sweet Pea” when she calls. She doesn’t know how I feel and I plan to keep it that way. It is small potatoes because I still have her and she does love me as screwed up as that sounds. Thanks for writing this I feel that you made me know that my forgiveness is small in the scheme of things and my mom will be better for it.

  10. August 9, 2013 at 6:38 am

    I always think of a quote that goes something like, “anger is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die” – it is all consuming and when we’re the ones holding on we take the brunt of it. But, it’s hard to forgive, or let go. Good for you for working on it.

    • August 9, 2013 at 7:01 am

      Love that quote!

    • Natalie
      August 10, 2013 at 6:31 am

      This quote will stay with me! How very simplistic and true.

  11. August 9, 2013 at 6:55 am

    Thank you .

  12. WendyB
    August 9, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Beautiful, Deb. I agree with Katy – I love when you write about your mom. You have done such a marvelous job at breaking so many cycles for your son, and his life is going to be so much better than that of generations before him. Good job, mama.

    Also, I have to say it … not all Mormons act like the Mafia when someone tries to leave. Lots do, but not all of us. 😉

  13. August 9, 2013 at 7:03 am

    Thanks for the reminder, Deb. Holding on to past hurts and slights is tempting, but such a bad idea for all involved. But I wonder, can there be true forgiveness without the offending party being repentant? Is there value in forgiving someone who doesn’t want to be forgiven?

    • August 9, 2013 at 12:23 pm

      Hah, I just commented on that same thing. Sort of. 😀 I guess it depends on your definition of true forgiveness, but personally I think the important thing is to look after your own emotional well-being, whether that means forgiving someone else or finding a way to forgive yourself for things you did even if the person on the other end wants nothing to do with you. You can’t really control whether the other person learns something or deserves forgiveness or whatever else…. you can only control what you do, for yourself. Just IMO. 🙂

    • August 10, 2013 at 8:34 am

      I wanted to reply to this yesterday, but I ended up falling asleep earlier than the little guy. D’oh!

      I think there’s great value in forgiving even someone who doesn’t want to be forgiven. If forgiveness is contingent upon someone being repentant, that’s the same to me as saying, “Because I will only grant this based on what you do or do not do, you still hold power over me. My actions are still governed by your choices.”

      If my forgiveness isn’t contingent upon another’s actions or inaction, it is exclusively within my control. And it just feels better by far, in my experience (although occasionally runs can be amped up by feeling a targeted grumpiness!).

      I like the way Mack said it just above, but the process above is the one I used to walk myself to my current (if not final) position on forgiveness. 🙂

  14. August 9, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    “You don’t do things to ‘the family’ unless you’re the Mafia.” APPLY ICE TO BURNED AREA.

    Those long grudges are certainly interesting beasts…. a friend of my mom’s likens it to holding a hot coal in your hand. The longer you hold it the more damage it to does to you, while the person you’re angry at or refusing to forgive probably doesn’t even know you’re doing it in the first place. All you end up with is your own pain for no good reason, until you learn how to open your hand and drop the damn coal. I guess I don’t really think of it in terms of forgiveness so much as letting go. (“Forgiveness” as a concept to me always feels like a sort of two-sided transaction, like forgiveness has to be both given and accepted, when I think the personal process is often a lot more one-sided… it doesn’t really matter what the other person thinks, what matters is getting right with yourself.)

    I think there’s a certain value in remembering who’s hurt you so you can remove yourself from situations that are likely to cause you trouble in the future, but there’s no use letting old injuries fester, either. You can learn to be cautious of things that have scarred you without reopening the wound all the time to make it bleed. It’s my experience that if people hurt you, they very often don’t care that you’re hurt, and they certainly continue to not care if you spend the next ten years hurting yourself on their behalf, either. You have to tend your own emotional garden, so to speak, and try not to worry about other people’s.

    tl;dr: Haters gon hate. 😀 In other news, you just made me wax all metaphorical.

  15. August 10, 2013 at 8:07 am

    This is such a lovely post, as usual, Deb. Forgiveness is such an important thing. It is so simple, yet so hard to allow. I struggle with it almost daily. It’s difficult to finally accept things that happened to us as kids, and to just own them as a part of who you are and how you came to be where you are today.
    I have finally come to a place in my life where I have learned to accept and move on when something can’t be changed. I’d much rather spend my life floating along with the current of things, than struggling to swim against it.
    So much love to you and your boys. xoxo

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