Forgiveness and Apologies: Acceptable and Not


My latest fictional exploration into the psychology of revenge.


In Israel, woman cannot pray at the Western Wall. In Gaza, women aren’t allowed to run marathons. Plenty of apologies and rationalizations are given, especially if international pressure is applied. And these apologies are mostly phrased as if it’s a man’s right to pray and run.

In 12-step programs, apologies are part of the prescribed path to living a sober, addictive-free life. Victims who have been physically and sexually damaged as a result of behavior deemed to relate to serious addiction in a partner, friend, or unrelated  innocent get a letter, phone call or personal visit. It works for the addicts. As in the example at the Western Wall and the marathon, I have serious questions about how well it works for the person receiving the apology.

In practice, victims and scapegoats who receive these entreaties usually offer thanks. But later there are misgivings. In my consulting office they usually describe considerable ambivalence about what has happened to them. What could I do, they ask. If I  told off the person and didn’t accept  the apology, I would feel guilty. If I accepted it with a handshake, hug, or conversation I would feel ripped off.

These responses are mediated by the damage done to them, their psychological work on the event, and by the role and attitude of the apology-giver. Does Adam Lanza’s father’s apology (see question to Dr. Scapegoat in Revenge II) really help anyone but himself? And what is the deepest meaning of Michaela’s (see answer by Dr. Scapegoat in On Rape) response of forgiveness to her rapist? How will she feel in a few months or years about her current heartfelt comment?

I have learned to be wary of apologies in all cultures. They often hurt as much as help. On important matters I always try to ask more about the process and the motivation. Most of all I don’t ever equate forgiveness and apology. The latter is a very large process linked to giving up the decidedly human need for revenge and through a great deal of effort and emerging wisdom, substituting a more capacious and spiritual view of  human weakness.

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