I’ve written a number of posts about forgiveness recently. Forgiveness is about harms that have been done to us. But what about harms we have done to others? In this case, forgiveness is in the hands of another person. I can’t force a person to forgive me. Yet, just as my forgiving another is a step toward healing a relationship, so is being forgiven.
In my 12 step program, we are encouraged to seek forgiveness for harms we have done. But before that, we go through a process that helps us to examine the exact nature of the wrong we have done. Are we talking about a thoughtless act in which we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings? Or are we talking about a full-blown character defect? In other words, do we have a habit of ignoring other people’s needs and feelings when speaking or making decisions? In the first case, we may have an excuse for our thoughtlessness. We were rushed, perhaps, or had something troubling on our mind. When this is the reason for a thoughtless act, a simple apology seems to be enough and hopefully will be accepted by the other person.
But when I learn that I have a character defect that pushes people away or makes them fear me in some way, then amends need to be made. I need to mend or fix something, namely myself. This is one reason apologies are often rebuffed. A person may apologize for a thoughtless act and yet continue to be thoughtless. One can say they are sorry for an act of violence while continuing to be a controlling person. To expect forgiveness in this case is unrealistic.
Those in recovery talk about “living amends” which means actually becoming different. They are letting go of one way of being and taking on another. For example, a person who is guilty of always looking out for one’s own needs and interests becomes person who is looks outward considering the needs and interests of others.
It takes humility to admit that one has done something harmful to another person, but it takes courage to admit that one has a character defect that underlies the harm. Admission is only the first step. Changing one’s character takes hard work and the deeper seated the defect, the harder the work.