Random header image... Refresh for more!


I was Googling for something else and came across this very moving article about an art installation David Foster Wallace’s widow created after his death.  Karen Green made a machine that gave a person forgiveness.  The article speaks about this piece of art she made after her husband’s suicide:

For a long while after that, she says, she couldn’t make any art at all, wondered if she ever would again, but eventually, tentatively, she developed the idea for her conciliatory Heath-Robinson. “The forgiveness machine was seven-feet long,” she says, “with lots of weird plastic bits and pieces. Heavy as hell.” The idea was that you wrote down the thing that you wanted to forgive, or to be forgiven for, and a vacuum sucked your piece of paper in one end. At the other it was shredded, and hey presto.

We have machines that heat our food, wash our clothes, suck up the dirt in our carpets.  It makes sense that we’d want a forgiveness machine for those of us who find it difficult to ask or give it.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy because it made people face the big what if: what if it worked and they had to forgive someone?  What if it worked and they had to be forgiven?  How would they forge those relationships they needed to have now without another machine to do it for them?


Justine had a beautiful post about forgiveness that made me think about how I approach forgiveness on the various levels in which forgiveness needs to be requested or given.  There are those who ask for forgiveness, and the ones we’re supposed to forgive even though they’re not remorseful at all.  We have the small transgressions and irreparable damage.  And then, moreover, Karen Green reminds us that we have the people to forgive who will never know of our forgiveness because they’re no longer here.  And then the forgiveness isn’t really for them, but for ourselves.

We run into the lack of remorse aspect a lot when it comes to helping the kids navigate forgiveness.  “Say you’re sorry!” we tell kids, and they do it, but we know they’re not really sorry.  They’re just sad that they got caught and are being reprimanded.

So do we accept apologies that are meaningless?  Do we ask our kids to give them?

Josh and I have a One-and-Done policy when it comes to bullying.  It’s actually not really a One-and-Done policy because we’re talking about kids, and kids say and do bonehead things.  It’s more like a Confirm-and-De-germ policy.  Once we’ve confirmed that a kid is bullying my kid (vs. two kids having a kid-like fight as all people do), we squash that virus by removing our kids from that situation, limiting contact, and telling them to treat the other person pleasantly but don’t engage.  They need to co-exist in the same world.  They don’t need to attempt to be their friend.

We know other people who have a very different policy, keeping their kids engaged even with the bullies in the hope that friendship will bloom if the kids are given enough time to work through whatever internal struggles they’re dealing with.  And that is a fair policy too; I can see the benefit of turning the other cheek.  But we don’t do this.

What I want them to do — in certain cases — is revisit.  This year, you couldn’t be friends.  Maybe next year, you’ll discover you had more in common than you thought.  And in other cases, we’ve encouraged them to keep a far distance forever.  How do we help them determine which people are worthy of forgiving and attempting to friend again, and which ones are worthy of moving away from forever?  Call it intuition.

Because while I think forgiveness is nice, I think there is something very healthy about taking a stand on how you’re willing to be treated.  To ending a relationship and saying, “no, thanks.”  To not continuing to try to work it out when it’s clear that you’re not going to be able to overcome differences.  You don’t need to wish the person ill or sit stewing in your anger forever, but you also don’t really need to forgive terrible behaviour.  And that goes for work relationships and romantic relationships and even friendship and familial relationships.  It is a very powerful thing to know what you’re willing to accept and put your foot down accordingly.  And no, you don’t really need to give forgiveness in order to draw those boundaries and move safely within them.  If you wish to give forgiveness, great.  But I do think it’s possible for some people to disengage and stand their ground without giving forgiveness too.

I’m basing this on the definition of forgiveness as provided by Wikipedia: “Forgiveness is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.”  It is wonderful that there are people on earth who can let go of their anger and resentment, but I don’t think that it’s an admirable quality whereas those who can’t have some foible.  I think they’re just two very different but equally good personalities: those who cease to demand restitution and those who continue to hold those accountable for their actions.

I think the danger comes when we ask people to be something they’re not.  When they’re naturally a forgiver, and we ask them to continue to be riled up and hold onto their anger.  Or when they’re naturally someone who is fueled to use their experiences to create change.

We have a word in English — unforgivable — and as long as we don’t apply it lightly, I see no reason why we shouldn’t use it along with the other millions of English words.  Some things are simply unforgivable, and what those things are differ from person to person.


David Foster Wallace’s death irreparably changed Karen Green’s life, just as all suicides do.  Just as all deaths do.  Who does she even forgive in that case?  Her husband?  Herself?  The doctor?  The brain?  The medicine makers?  The medical system?  His ancestry that led to his brain chemistry?  And is forgiveness even the correct word because I don’t think anyone who has ever been touched by suicide thinks about it in terms of punishment or restitution, at least not directed at the person themselves.  How can we punish the dead?  How can we demand restitution from them for the new lives they’ve created for us?

What I got from the article is that humans like neat endings.  Humans like understanding; to creating meaning where there is no meaning.  And forgiveness is one of those things that we yearn for, think we should do, even when we also know that there are rarely neat endings and plenty of moments in life devoid of meaning.  So why should we ever have the hubris to think that forgiving is always a possibility?  That forgiveness is something we need to give in order to continue living well?  Even while at the same time, we ask for it: forgive us, please.


1 Ellen { 06.11.13 at 7:55 am }

Very insightful post. Thank you,

2 Tiara { 06.11.13 at 8:10 am }

There is no way I can express how much this post resonates with me. Thank you for writing it. We’ve had a family issue resently I this post comes at the perfect time to shine some clarity on the situation…it’s like you wrote this directly to us! Again, thank you.

3 Karen (formerly Serenity) { 06.11.13 at 8:18 am }

Interestingly, Justine’s post made me think of the girl who bullied me; she quite literally made my eighth grade year a living hell. I held onto that resentment for a lot of years, even when she sought me out after college (before social media!). I finally, about a year ago, accepted her friend request on Facebook. And surprisingly, we’re a lot more alike than I thought we’d be. Which is maybe why she bullied me back in the day. Maybe she was jealous. Or I was threatening to her. I don’t know.

What I know is that it wasn’t doing me any good to hold onto 25 years of anger. So I let it go.

Maybe I’m better at forgiveness than I thought I was.

I did really like your metaphor on Justine’s post, about how sometimes forgiveness is impossible, and the best you can do is box up that anger – after you make sure it won’t poison or damage anything else in the vicinity – and keep it in your mental basement. I spend a lot of of my mental energy some days working on figuring out how to forgive and forget. Maybe that’s not possible, and I just have to sit with the pain until it’s small enough to box up and put in my basement.


4 Pepper { 06.11.13 at 8:44 am }

I think forgiveness is used too expansively sometimes (I think that’s what I mean). I do not speak to a sibling. He is extremely difficult to deal with for a myriad of reasons and I choose not to have in my life. I am not necessarily holding onto resentment, indignation, etc. I just choose not to have a relationship because it is healthier for me, my husband and my daughter. We still spend time with his family as I think it is important that I have a relationship with his children and they have a relationship with my daughter. Others have told me I need to just forgive and move on. The thing is, forgiveness aside, I do not want to move on. I am not stuck. I choose not to have a relationship. So I think there’s that element sometimes too. (I may have gotten off track here)

5 Alex Block { 06.11.13 at 10:29 am }

Lovely! And so true.

6 Justine { 06.11.13 at 12:53 pm }

Thank you for deciding to post this, Mel. I never would have read the article about Green … what a powerful illustration of our need for forgiveness, and yet, our inability to tie things up neatly, to create the endings we want.

In another conversation with the group I mentioned, one of the women talked about how her daughters had been treated before adoption (I will not reveal too much here, but suffice to say that they suffered what we would deem an atrocity in another country at a very young age). She has tried to process that, and so have they, and she tells them that they don’t ever need to forgive the person that did this to them … that it is unforgiveable. Maybe this is where I need to separate the person from the act. The act is unforgiveable; the person is a person, and unfortunately, a highly fallible human being perhaps still, in their horribleness, worthy of compassion. Or at least, the striving-Buddhist in me wants to say so. My therapist seems to think otherwise. I don’t think she puts it quite as generously as you do; she thinks that the people who say they let go of anger and resentment have their own residual issues … not quite that they’re full of shit, but that it’s much more complicated than it appears on the surface.

But I think that even in the case of your kids, allowing them distance and time to heal is healthy … they need to know that it’s OK to protect themselves if they can. In some respects, I guess it’s what I did … I knew that I could not be there, so I left. And maybe I’m at one of those crossroads where I’m asked if I’m ready. It’s what I’ve done, where I could, with several unforgiveable acts in my life. Retreated, until I could be whole enough to make a decision about whether or not I could engage with that person.

Someone else was talking about the fact that she had just had an argument with a dear friend who betrayed her trust, and she was doing the same thing, but feeling guilty about it. We told her that this was both helping her to protect herself, and helping him to understand the degree to which she was hurt, that she couldn’t simply re-engage at the same level where they were before. It’s a way for us to be more honest about our relationships … both with other people and with ourselves.

7 Ana { 06.11.13 at 1:07 pm }

Great post, lots to think about. I like your approach—I think cutting yourself out of the situation makes it easy to let the anger/resentment die down, if not completely disappear. With distance, you can decide whether you want to try again. Its not healthy to stoke the anger and resentment, but its also not healthy to not have boundaries for how you will stand to be treated. I really wasn’t taught any of this as a child, and its taken me a long time to find the right balance between being a doormat, and building up an internal bonfire of righteous indignation over every slight.
Your insight about forgiveness not necessarily being the “higher path” is really eye-opening. A lot of good, a lot of change, has come into the world from someone realizing that something was unforgivable, and should never be allowed to happen again, and then deciding to devote their time & energy to fighting it.
I try not to make my kids say “I’m sorry”—at this age they really don’t know what it means, and it is truly just empty syllables. But some social situations seem to demand it, so I can’t get away from it altogether.

8 a { 06.11.13 at 10:16 pm }

I frequently have a hard time believing in the sincerity of others. This is why I don’t celebrate my birthday – especially at work. I would rather not listen to people wish me a happy birthday when I know they would rather see me falling off a cliff with boulders tied to me. So, I think it’s probably fairly obvious that I’m not a big believer in contrition and I’m not very generous with forgiveness.

Like you, though, it takes a lot for me to be angry – so it naturally follows that whatever happened was generally unforgivable. I mean that in the sense that once the trust is betrayed, it cannot be rebuilt. I can be polite, and even friendly, if necessary. But there will always be a certain sense of reserve. Fortunately (?), I don’t let a lot of people get close to me, and the ones that do, I am as certain as I can be that they aren’t likely to do something unforgivable.

As to people who are not close – well, there wasn’t much of a relationship to destroy, so there’s not really much to be built back up. In fact, I doubt that acquaintances who have done something I found offensive would really notice a difference. But the “relationship” would stagnate, and never progress.

As for my own actions…well, I try not to be a jerk. If I do something foolish and offensive, it’s not deliberate. It’s likely just my awkward manner. Not an excuse, I know. But I do try not to be a jerk…and I try to be a good person and a good friend.

9 Liz { 06.12.13 at 1:43 am }

This post really resonated with me. I’m one of those people who finds it hard to forgive. Not because I need to punish the other person, but because I need to be safe. Once someone hurts me, they go on the watch list. It doesn’t feel like holding a grudge, more like filing a caution for future reference. I don’t know anyone else who talks about this the way that I do (although maybe Brene Brown’s ‘marble jar’ image comes close). Anyway, I felt like your post gave me permission to just be myself, so thank you.

You said: “And forgiveness is one of those things that we yearn for, think we should do, even when we also know that there are rarely neat endings and plenty of moments in life devoid of meaning. ” I thought YES, but then I also thought that 1) we want to minimize uncertainty, and somehow leaving things unsettled can make us vulnerable and 2) we want to be whole. Sometimes withholding forgiveness makes us less whole, kind of like not-forgiving is a hoarcrux. But other times refusing forgiveness can be way of telling the truth and honoring our integrity. So, like you said, it’s complicated.

10 St. Elsewhere { 06.12.13 at 2:03 am }

Very insightful.

I read a quote somewhere that said – ‘Forgive and forget and you will never regret.’

I find it easier to forgive than to forget, and if I can’t forget it is the forgiveness real?

11 Jessie { 06.12.13 at 3:02 am }

The pastor that I had when I first moved back to my hometown had a sermon about forgiveness that has stuck with me. She made two major points. The first one was that forgiveness is NOT about the other person, it is about you, it is a process of you letting go of the hurt and not letting it poison you any more, regardless of whether the other person ever knows that you forgave them or not. Under this premise, nothing is “unforgiveable” because we all have the possibility of letting go of pain even when we don’t have the ability to do so.

But as part of that, nothing is “unforgiveable” because forgiveness does NOT mean saying that what happened is OK. Forgiveness is then saying that what happened was absolutely “not OK” but that despite it being “not OK” you’re going to stop letting it hurt you.

Part of not letting it hurt you anymore, though, is being careful to not put yourself in a position of being hurt again by the same person. We say “forgive and forget,” but those two do not necessarily go together. Mel, you talk about the Confirm-and-Degerm policy, and that’s a perfect example. The kids can forgive the people that bully them by letting go of the pain of being bullied while still staying away from the bullies because of not wanting to be in an unsafe situation.

I don’t remember any of the other sermons from this pastor in this level of detail…guess I had needed to hear it!!

12 Mommy-At-Last { 06.12.13 at 4:10 am }

My Mom committed suicide over three years ago. I was very angry for a long time and it was only when my therapist said to me that I don’t have to forgive her, she hurt me and made decisions that impact the rest of my life and could never be undone that I started to heal. The strange thing is now that I no longer feel pressure to fogive her, I find I am forgiving her.

13 Lynn { 06.12.13 at 11:38 am }

I think it’s sometimes easier to forgive those we love than those we don’t or that we love only in the abstract of being human. I know I find it easier to forgive a family member than someone outside of my family who slights me.

Now, having said that, I feel like it should also be easier to forgive a child, but I know from personal experience of our little man being bullied by one of his classmates that it has been virtually impossible for me to forgive that child, even though he’s only 2 years old. More to the point, it’s been impossible for me to forgive that child’s parent because the child doesn’t yet have the capability to understand what he’s done wrong, but the parents do. In the end, we had our little boy moved to another class to end the constant bullying he was experiencing. I honestly never thought we would have to worry about bullying at the age of 2, but there you go. Perhaps one day I’ll find myself able to forgive the parent/child, but right now I don’t feel that generous.

14 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.12.13 at 10:37 pm }

When you asked this: “Who does she even forgive in that case?” it made me think about one of the toughest things about infertility for me. There was no place to direct my anger, no one to forgive for the grievous transgression that I felt had been done to me.

15 luna { 06.14.13 at 1:48 am }

interesting and relevant on several levels.

in cases where our 4yo may owe an apology for her words or behavior, we don’t force an insincere one. instead we try to use the incident as an opportunity to cultivate some empathy and care for others. so we encourage her to check in with the other person to make sure they are ok, and we ask how she would like it if someone did the same to her. it doesn’t always work but I think it does more good than teaching her that insincerity is an acceptable solution.

I was talking with another parent about how “I’m sorry” is often the first “lie” kids learn to tell. once they see how easy it is to get away with that little lie, it becomes easier to tell other, bigger lies. it makes sense.

as for whether forgiveness is always a healthy goal, I agree with you. I think it’s important to respect and value your self and that which is meaningful to you. in some cases I think peace is simply not possible without some unfair compromise, without someone accepting some degradation of self (not ego, but self worth — an important distinction).

interesting food for thought.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author