Sunday, March 21, 2010

When 'I'm sorry' isn't enough

How huge does a transgression have to be before simply saying, "I'm sorry," is not nearly enough? And does someone actually have to earn forgiveness or should it be given freely, when an apology seems sincere?

I've been thinking a lot about this recently. Mostly it's because of people like Tiger Woods and Sandra Bullock's husband, who've been publicly apologizing like crazy for cheating on their spouses, but it's also because I have a truly terrible habit of holding grudges for eternity. It takes a lot for me to lose faith in someone, but once I have, forgiveness does not come easily. And I have to say if I were in the position of some of these wronged wives, forgiveness would likely be impossible.

I have a couple of friends who are ministers. One, who shakes his head at my stubborn refusal to let go of things, reminds me that the person I'm hurting most is myself. The other, who's written a book on forgiveness, would probably be appalled to know how deeply I cling to past hurts. Even I recognize just how absurd it is at times.

To give you one of the more ridiculous examples, when I was maybe eight, an umpire tossed a pitcher from the old Washington Senators -- my favorite team at the time -- out of a game because a coach from Baltimore in my "expert" opinion harassed him till he did something stupid. Remember now, I was eight. I wrote to the commissioner of baseball to protest. More dramatically, I boycotted the entire city of Baltimore. I had not set foot in that town until last year when I was sent there on a book tour. Now that's a grudge!

At fourteen, when a dentist jabbed me with novacaine to do my first filling without discussing it with me, my parents had to change dentists. I refused to ever go back to that one.

See what I mean? Those examples might be dismissed as slightly wacky or eccentric, because I was, after all, just a kid. As an adult, it's meant that there are businesses I won't patronize or individuals I won't spend time with. And I suppose there'd be nothing wrong with that, if either had seriously wronged me and I'd simply made a decision to end the relationship, whether business or personal. Sadly, though, I often let it eat at me.

What a waste of time and energy and proof positive of the importance of letting go of things, not for the sake of the offending person, but for yourself. Who wins if you hold onto a grudge? You're not really making the other person miserable, are you? If they're so inconsiderate that they've done you seriously wrong in the first place, then you staying mad at them probably won't matter. It'll only ruin your health.

So, my advice to the wives of all those cheaters -- get furious, call the louses every name in the book if it'll make you feel better, then forgive. Not for their sake, but for yours. That does not, by the way, mean you take them back unless they've gone way beyond 'I'm sorry' to prove they're worthy of another chance.

A poet and writer whose work I've enjoyed over the years, Dorothy Parker, said it best: "Living well is the best revenge." Forgive, and live really, really well.

What about the rest of you? How do you handle it if you've been wronged, whether by a cheating spouse or a friend? Is a sincere apology enough to win your forgiveness? Or does it depend on the seriousness of the betrayal? And if you've found a way to truly let go of the past and move on after someone's hurt you, how have you done it? Let me know by clicking on comments below.

Sherryl Woods

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