What do you do when someone won't forgive you? I haven't lied, stolen, cheated, physically harmed anyone, etc. But I know that I have hurt the feelings of a friend who doesn't seem to want me in her life. In fairness, there have been friends that I have parted ways with over the same sort of human mistakes. How do I be more forgiving of others, and how do I move past someone who won't forgive me?
I have a vivid recollection of learning the Yom Kippur forgiveness concept in Hebrew School. I took such things very literally and was concerned that my apologies would be accepted in time to secure my inscription in the Book of Life. But what if someone wouldn’t accept my apology,? I worriedly asked my fifth-grade teacher. She responded that if you sincerely asked for forgiveness three times and the person would not grant it, then you were automatically forgiven by God. I was thrilled to learn this news! It seemed incredibly reasonable to me, and I was satisfied with a loophole accounting for anyone who I imagined to be stone-hearted.
I’m sorry; I’m sorry; I’m sorry! I would tell my older brother for entering his room without permission.
As an adult, having made sincere apologies for more serious infractions, the triple-ask condition seems much less doable. Asking for forgiveness is hard, it is humbling and it can be incredibly awkward. When I sense that an apology is not accepted, my instinct is not to keep asking.
I believe in the power of a sincere apology, and I also believe in the sentiment expressed in these lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,”
You do not have to walk on your knees / For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
So where does that situate us? The simple answer is that I don’t think that you can make someone forgive you any more than you can make someone apologize, or, for that matter, make someone do anything.
A question that I ask myself at this time of year is why I need for my apology to be accepted. (To be clear, as you specified, we’re not talking about violations to a person's being or spirit, but the type of human errors that we all are guilty of in our relationships with others).
Will someone’s forgiveness make me feel better / less guilty? Do I truly value my friendship with that person and want to fight to keep it? Have I adequately acknowledged my own role in the situation? I know that there are times when I have apologized with a secret hope to receive an apology right back!
I had a very close friend who distanced himself from me after I was not present in the way he needed at critical point in his life. At the time I did not understand why he had cut me out; couldn’t he be more forgiving of such a dear friend who had been supportive through the years but also had their own full life wrought with busyness and challenges? And then, a few years later, I had my first child and a very difficult postpartum to follow. I understood, only then, the excruciating pain of being let down by people whom I had loved and trusted when they weren’t present in the ways that I had hoped. I wrote my friend a letter of apology. I would not have been able to do so any sooner; I simply didn’t understand until that moment.
And that is really one of most the gorgeous and painful aspects of being alive and in relationships with other people: the longer you experience life, the more likely it is that you will be on all sides of these situations, granted the empathy necessary for understanding and for forgiveness. Sometimes it is too late to repair a friendship. And then you have to do the very difficult act of moving on. Sometimes these are necessary losses. (The book Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst is an excellent read on that point).
Other times, you can - even if it takes years longer than you had hoped - repair a relationship.
And sometimes, thank God, there are relationships that repair themselves; with enough time and a heart that has been pierced and mended on so many occasions, it is easier to accept apologies and to make sincere amends, less with the words sorry than with acts of love and kindness.