When my father passed away in March 2013, it was the first time I’d seen my younger brother in almost six years. The details of why are not important, but basically, we had become entangled in a business relationship that was ill advised at best, and it ended badly. We had not had any contact at all during those six years, and I had spent a good portion of my time trying to set aside the natural human tendency, especially when something hurts deeply, to look for a way to blame my brother for what happened. I knew I had made mistakes, and I wanted to be ready, should the opportunity present itself, to apologize, and to open the door to healing what was once a very strong friendship. So by the time I saw him again, I had managed to let go of most of the anger over how our relationship soured. I was open to good things happening.
I hugged him when I first saw him, hoping that this would set the mood. We spent a lot of time together in the days after my father died, although we were never alone. We shared stories about my father, and planned for the funeral service. It was cordial, sometimes even tinged with joy. I felt hopeful. We spent a few hours walking on the beach with a couple of our cousins one afternoon. We both spoke at the service, and I thought his words were powerful and evocative.
But the healing never happened. I saw him again a couple of months later, when we had another service in our home town. Again the mood was cordial, and I sent an email a few days after I saw him again, making amends for what happened. I felt good about it, because I did not say anything critical of him. I just took ownership for what I’d done. He never responded. I have not heard from him since. In fact, I’ve heard rumblings from other family members about things he’s still angry about. Not just from the business, but from years ago. Thirty years ago. Some of what he’s angry about never even happened, but that’s not really the point. That’s not what bothers me.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. Desmond Tutu, in an interview with Bill Moyers, defined forgiveness as ‘abandoning my right to revenge.’ He goes on to say that by giving up this right for revenge, we then “open the door of opportunity to you (the forgiven) to make a new beginning.” This makes it all sound way too simple, but when you remember that this is a man who lived through thirty years of having his people tortured and executed, it brings a bigger sense of profundity to Tutu’s assessment.
It seems absurd to compare a situation where two people have fallen out over money to the horrors of apartheid, but when you break it down to the most basic elements of human behavior, the comparison is perfect. I have several memories from this business relationship with my brother that I could clutch tightly to my chest to justify a thirst for revenge. I could spend the years until we see each other again planning what I will say to hurt my brother, or to let him know how he has hurt me. I could spend those years plotting a way to recover the money that I lost in this business. My life savings.
But by embracing Tutu’s approach instead, I have the opportunity to enjoy a peaceful existence despite what happened. I don’t think there’s any way I can possibly exaggerate the impact this approach has had on my life in the past few weeks.
My mother found a stack of my father’s journals in their belongings, and after deciding she couldn’t read them herself, she offered them to me. I was saddened to find an entry where my father voiced the opinion that he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven for things he did to us, his children. He was talking about our early years, when he had a temper that was often explosive, sometimes physical. My father was a gentle, quiet man, so these bursts of temper always came as a shock. But somewhere along the line, they also stopped. In fact, my brother, who is six years younger, has no memory of my father losing his temper.
My theory has always been that my father realized, probably unconsciously, that being emotionally involved in the lives of his children was just too painful for him. That the price was too high if it meant he would lose his temper in that way. I think he slowly withdrew from being a father on an emotional level, and the positive impact of that was that these angry outbursts stopped. But there was also a negative impact. He became so emotionally distant from the family that he didn’t experience the joys either. And it pains me now to know that he was never able to forgive himself for those early years. Because all three of his children forgave him. We all did our share of counseling in order to deal with some of the effects. He became a different person in his later years, mostly due to his decision to stop drinking when he was in his late forties. For most of the last thirty years of his life, he was not as distant. But he was never able to get to the point where he could bestow the same gentle, forgiving outlook he had toward other people to himself.
When I look back at my father’s attitude toward failure, I find an interesting parallel to Tutu’s philosophy about forgiveness. Dad seemed to think that he deserved whatever disappointment came his way, as if he considered it a retribution for his weaker moments. In other words, by not being able to forgive himself, he had not given up that right to revenge. So he welcomed it, in whatever form it came to him, as something he deserved. The saddest part of this is that nobody who knew my father well would ever agree with him. Nobody that I know was more beloved in his circle of family and friends.
So what does one do when forgiveness doesn’t come from someone important to them? What does one do when there seems to be no possibility of healing? For a period of many years, when we were both young adults, my brother was my best friend. We lived together in Boston while we were both going to graduate school, and I consider this to be one of the best periods of my life.
In that same interview, Moyers goes on to ask Tutu whether there’s anything the person who has been wrong needs to do to prepare to be forgiven. Tutu’s answer gave me the willies at first. He says, “For your own sake, the only way you can appropriate forgiveness is by confessing.” But the way he explains the purpose of this act gives it a whole different perspective. He compares holding onto resentments to being in a dark room, with the windows closed and the shades drawn, so that the air and the sunlight are not able to enter. By opening the windows, and the shades, or in other words, by telling someone that we are wrong, and that we would like to be forgiven, we open the window to the light that is available to us.
I am not a Christian, (and by that, I mean I don’t believe in the Christian God…I do believe there’s something out there) so although the religious undertones of this whole process make me skeptical, it’s hard to deny the logic, not to mention the results. But the struggle for me comes when I have issued my apology. I have expressed my part. And nothing happens. Where does that leave me? And where does that leave us, as brothers?
When Moyers asks Tutu the worst part of apartheid, his answer is surprising. He says “You begin to question whether you are a child of God. You begin to wonder whether they are right.” This is the worst part of not being forgiven as well. Tutu says that language is very powerful, and that when someone tells you over and over again that you are not worthy of being considered an equal, even if you don’t think you believe it, it can wear away at your self-esteem. I believe silence does the same thing. In fact, I would submit that the tacit disapproval from someone who is important to you can sometimes be more painful that outright anger. Because silence creates so many blanks that we end up filling in on our own. It opens the door to every doubt we’ve ever entertained about ourselves, and like a magnifying glass, makes them seem bigger than they really are.
Although I apologized over and over again to my brother when we were trying to find a way to make our business relationship work, there was always a feeling that I was apologizing for the wrong thing, or leaving something out. Near the end of that period, he claimed that I had never apologized to him, a claim that I had a hard time even taking seriously. For many years, I devoted a lot of time and energy toward trying to figure out what those omissions were. But it finally occurred to me after this last visit, when I found that he was still rehashing things that happened (or didn’t happen) more than thirty years ago, that perhaps my brother doesn’t want to forgive me. It finally occurred to me that I could apologize for every single thing that I feel uncomfortable about throughout the fifty years we’ve shared together, and there will always be something left for him to hang onto as a reason to keep me at an arm’s length. And of course, I wonder why. But more importantly, I wonder why I would want to have a relationship with someone who sees me this way. Someone who is only focused on the things I have done wrong. Especially considering that none of these transgressions were intended to hurt him.
One of the most important things I’ve learned from this experience is that there is nothing noble about forgiving someone. It does not give me the feeling of smug righteousness I expected it would. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It is, in fact, as selfish as any other act I can think of, because the ultimate goal of forgiving my brother is to give me peace from the poison I know will invade my brain if I continue to hang onto anger and resentment. And on top of that, the desire to seek forgiveness forces me to look at myself in the clearest light possible, digging up the realization that I can be just as petty, just as judgmental, and just as vengeful as the next guy. It’s important to admit that as part of my journey.
So in the end, I’m left with a simple belief. I believe that it is my own forgiveness that matters most. If I can forgive myself, if I can come to the determination that I have done my best to repair the damaged bridges, then it is up to my brother to step onto that plank and take the walk across to my side. If I forgive myself, I have more to offer my other friendships as well.
But it is a painful reality, this rejection from someone who was once so close to me. And I believe if you have a heart, and if you live in a world where you acknowledge what’s in that heart, there will occasionally be days where you wake up with that horrible feeling that you have somehow not done enough. That you are flawed in a way that can never be repaired.
Thankfully, we don’t have to believe that small voice. Thankfully, if we have done what we can to forgive ourselves, we won’t fall into that hole where we believe we deserve retribution. And if we can do that, there’s a very good chance that we will find people who agree with us, and will love us no matter how much we are rejected by those whose love we crave. Because we all deserve that, at least.