Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. We're all going through transitions, let's master them together. Every Monday and Thursday we explore family, health, work, and meaning, with the occasional dad joke and dose of inspiration. If you're new around here, read my introductory post, learn about me, or check out our archives.
When Desmond Tutu was a young boy, there were nights when he was forced to watch helplessly as his father verbally and physically abused his mother. Decades later, after Tutu rose to become one of the most morally righteous men in the world (winning a Nobel Peace Prize among other honors), he could still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in his mother’s eyes, and taste the hopeless despair and craving for revenge that defined the most vulnerable years of his childhood.
Yet, even when he was haunted by those feelings in the later years of his life, Tutu did something other than harm his father in retribution. He forgave his father.
“Why would I do such a thing?” Tutu asked. "I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart.”
I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. First, this week is Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of atonement, when individuals are asked to seek forgiveness both for their own sins and for the collective sins of the community.
Second, the back-to-back of the anniversary of 9/11 and the recent terrorist attack in Afghanistan has brought the brutal hurdle of collective forgiveness back into the news. President Biden said of the Kabul airport attackers, “We will not forgive.” [Compare for a second Pope Francis, who said on his recent visit to Iraq that people of all faiths should forgive even heinous acts.]
Finally, I can't shake the gut feeling that forgiveness could actually help all of us get past our underlying frustration – even anger – at the life we’ve been forced to contend with over the last 18 months. We might choose different targets for that forgiveness—inept public officials, Chinese bureaucrats, our neighbors, God—but somehow, having an action we could take to make us feel better might help us all recover from our collective trauma.
But what exactly is the best way to achieve forgiveness? I’ve been thinking about this question for years. In 2015, I wrote a New York Times column on this topic in which I laid out a number of very meaningful steps: 1) Admit vulnerability, 2) Apologize, no really apologize, 3) Ask.
And yet, for me personally, the lesson that I think of most often – and the one I find hardest to implement – I learned in a completely unexpected place.
The year was 2017. I had just published The First Love Story, my exploration of the story of Adam and Eve and what it can teach us about modern relationships. Forgiveness was a big theme in that book. Just think of all the treachery and treason the first humans of the Bible had to endure in each other, yet still they managed to reconcile, stay together, have children, then have even more children even after one of their sons murdered the other. If they don’t forgive each other (and forgive God, for that matter), the Bible ends in Book 1.
For a segment on Good Morning America, I was asked to answer viewer questions about the book. One came from Dana Molskness: My husband and I have been married for 28 years. How can a spouse learn to forgive, rebuilt trust, and move on to having a healthy relationship?
I answered, without thinking too much: “You know forgiveness is something you do for yourself,” I said.
I’m not sure I remember where I first learned this idea, but lots of people take credit for it—from self-help authors Tony Robbins and Louise Hay to actors and psychologists.
To me, the best expressions of this idea come from two people. The first is Bishop Tutu. If he could see his father today, he wrote, he would tell him that he had forgiven him. He would thank him for all the wonderful things he did as a father but tell him that one thing he did pained him very much. "Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still, I would forgive him.”
His reason: Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. But that’s not why we forgive. “We don't forgive to help the other person,” Tutu said. “We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.”
Another person who wonderfully captured this counter-intuitive idea of the selfishness of forgiveness put it even more directly. In 2013, when Maya Angelou received an honor from the National Book Foundation, she gave an interview to ABC News in which she recounted the long, painful journey of civil rights in America, including the assassination of many leaders, among them Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
And yet, there is no hope without forgiveness, she said.
"Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself. It's not for the other person. It's for your own sake. To rid yourself of that weight. That’s the answer."
If there's one thing I've learned in all these years of considering forgiveness, it's that the question never goes away. For that reason alone, perhaps it's time to try a new answer: Don’t wait for others to change in order to forgive them; forgive them now, and allow yourself to change.
You might enjoy reading these posts: