Issue Calls for Forgiveness Beyond Yom Kippur

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Dear Miriam,

There is someone in my life who hurt me (emotionally) very badly in the past. This person has long since changed their behavior, but not because of me specifically. I am pretty sure this person does not understand that they hurt me to such a deep extent.

As a result, although this person reaches out before Yom Kippur each year to ask forgiveness in general, they haven’t apologized or asked for forgiveness for this specific issue. Without that, I don’t feel like I can forgive them, but I haven’t brought it up because I think it would cause them severe emotional pain to know how their past behavior affected me. In the meantime, each year it is very hard for me to go into Yom Kippur with this issue unresolved between us. What should I do?

Signed,

Unresolved Yom Kippur

Dear Unresolved,

Though I received this question before Yom Kippur, I’m answering it afterward, which is kind of perfect because years of Yom Kippur reflection haven’t lessened your hurt, and there’s no reason to think that my answer would have caused a dramatic change this year (plus, that’s a lot of pressure).

This is a perfect post-Yom Kippur reminder that even with our one day of serious attention to repentance, resentments and pain and unresolved emotions can linger. Also even though we are commanded to focus on teshuvah (changing our ways) on Yom Kippur, we’re not commanded not to think about it the rest of the year.

Though the person who hurt you hasn’t been specific in their apology, I hope there’s some value in my saying that I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through. I’m also glad, however, that this person isn’t hurting you anymore, and that it sounds like they aren’t hurting others in the same way either. Though you haven’t gotten the emotional closure you need, I hope you’re able to see that there might be closure out there for you, 1) because this person has changed their behavior, and 2) because this person has apologized to you.

While there is a mismatch between your experience and the other person’s understanding of it, your work now might be to find a way to bring the pain and the apology closer together, and, for better or worse, you have a whole year until next Yom Kippur to figure out what that looks like.

I don’t think that telling the person how much they’ve hurt you is the answer to your own closure, specifically because they’ve already changed their ways. If ever this person were to ask about this issue in particular or directly about anything they’ve done to hurt you, you could tell them, but otherwise, I don’t think that causing this person pain will ameliorate your own.

Instead, think back on the times this person has reached out to apologize in general. Are there any threads in those conversations that you could reinterpret as being more directly about your specific hurt? Do you have any other experiences of forgiveness that you’ve experienced that you could connect to in order to help yourself move on? How would you want someone to approach you if the circumstances were reversed?

I recently read a really excellent parenting book called It’s OK Not to Share. One of the techniques it recommends for helping children to get over disappointments is to have them write a letter. If a kid trips over something and gets hurt, she can write a letter to the shoe that says, “I wish you hadn’t been in the middle of the floor.” If she is upset about the ending to a movie, she can write to the character and describe what “should” have happened. If she wants to go to a party but wasn’t invited, she can write to the host and say how sad she is.

The point of these letters isn’t to send them (and shoes aren’t typically great at correspondence) but to articulate the feelings. On a whim, I tried this out a few months ago and honestly couldn’t believe how productive it was for helping my own kids move on when they were stuck on something.

It’s a lot like writing in a journal, really, and I wonder if you could draft a letter to this person, knowing that the things you need to express are ultimately for your own benefit. Maybe, in a modified tashlich experience, you could take the letter to the river to rip it up and watch it float away. Maybe you’ll want to hang onto it and reread it every Yom Kippur to remember how difficult forgiveness really is. Maybe you want to mail it to PostSecret or slip it in a secret spot where someone can anonymously read it. Maybe you’d rather go to a private place and scream out your anger to this person, knowing your feelings may never be completely resolved.

Forgiveness is necessary in many circumstances. Apologies can be useful and cathartic. But a forced apology isn’t typically so helpful, and causing someone else shame while eliciting an apology doesn’t usually bring about the desired relief, especially when there’s no more work to be done to change the present. I hope you were able to make some progress this Yom Kippur. I hope you’re able to make even more progress in the weeks and years ahead.

Be well,

Miriam

1 COMMENT

  1. Because of my personal circumstances and being also afflicted by Bipolar 1 disorder, I’ve been hurt by people I have great difficulty expressing the distress at the time, lack many of the social skills, and feel a tremendous lack of self esteem, because I’ve failed at, or because of medication or aging am losing skills that I was good at, and could feel pride in. I feel like less of a person, and motivation energy I need to overcome a lot of things is hard to come up with, including basic Torah-based Orthodox Judaism. By the way, I’m terrified of confrontation, and have a basic approval-seeking, passive aggressive pattern.

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