It would perhaps make more sense to begin by talking about apologizing, and conclude by talking about forgiveness. But I'm pretty sure that until we understand true forgiveness, we are incapable of true apology.
As I said in my last post, one of the worst things about forgiving someone is knowing that even if that person apologizes, she has very little idea of what she's being forgiven for. Unless the exact same thing has happened to her in the past, how could she know? She is the perpetrator, I the wronged. I have felt the brunt of her wrong, not she. An apology is an easy thing in comparison to the wrong I've endured.
This reality is true in a broader, cultural sense, as well. We carry wrongs deep in our consciousness for generations and generations. Most of the time, no apology is even attempted, but even if it were, how could it help? White people will never understand what it felt like to be a slave, to have that identity embedded into one's idea of race and culture. Men will never understand what it is like to be a woman, to always be the "other," to have to try to assimilate in order to be treated as equals. And on and on, through every wrong done, large or small, enacted upon millions of people or by one friend to another.
Yet, as I said in my previous post, we must forgive. So we must also apologize. And just as we learn to truly forgive because of our growing understanding of our own need for forgiveness, we learn to apologize and to accept apologies by the same token. It is so much easier to create divisions—to assign blame and put up defenses. To remind each other that no matter how many times apology happens, it can never make up for the wrong. To pretend that we—whether on an individual or cultural level—are blameless. To grow strong through our self-righteousness.
But that is not true forgiveness. True forgiveness is accepting an apology for what it is, with all its holes and flaws, with its imperfections, and holding it up as an example of what it means to love. Love is so deeply embedded in forgiveness that they are sometimes confused with each other, but forgiveness is not blind love—it is the clearest sighted of all the variations of love. Forgiveness lifts up an apology to the sunlight and smiles a little at the inadequacy of it, and then takes it anyway. It recognizes that no one is blameless, least of all oneself.
And the beautiful thing about apology and forgiveness is that because we are human, we are, in fact, united through the process. The person apologizing to me may not fully understand what he has done to hurt me, but he certainly understands what it feels like to be hurt. I am reminded of a beautiful quote from Diane Setterfield's novel, The Thirteenth Tale:
He didn't know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said, and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. “I know,” he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.
It's too trite to say that we must forgive because next time, we may be the one asking for forgiveness. But the root of that is very true. We don't forgive as a safeguard against any future wrongs we may commit—we forgive because we are connected to each other. We are human, and we are wrongdoers, and we are wronged, and we are all forgiven, by God and by each other. And though the way in which we must ask for forgiveness is never quite right, it is all we can do. Thankfully, it is enough.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele