Discipline #8 - Apology and Forgiveness

Link to a pdf of the handout

Our next discipline is designed to give guidance to what we need to do to repair the relationships we want to restore when they are damaged.

Event: Relationships are damaged by events which cause harm to the parties to it. These can be discrete events or they can be a series of events. In either case, healing begins with the identification of the events which did the harm. What actually happened?

This is the essential first step in any attempt to resolve a conflict. What is the actual shared reality? What can we all agree happened or is happening? This is the point of our departure. We can pick any point we want, but we have to pick a point. If I am going to address this conflict in such a way as to heal a relationship with another, we have to start at the same point.

Choices: Events arise as a result of the many choices which construct them. Thus our next step is to identify those choices. One of the things which harm relationships is the denial of the significant role that some choices have made in constructing a given event. The most obvious way we do this is with blame. As we noted in Chapter Nine, blame is a way of denying accountability and is a statement which says that only one person or party's choices matter in the construction of a given event.

Therefore we have to name both the choices we made which contributed to the event and the choices others made which contributed to the event. We have to have both fully in mind.

When Joe broke down Jesse's door and then pulled it out of the door jam it was entirely Joe's choice to so act. He is fully responsible for his own actions. And it was not incidental that Jesse was burning something in his room, locked the door, and didn't answer when his father called to him.

Consequences: These choices were causes which have effects. What can we know about the effects of these choices on the other, on ourselves, and on the relationship? These are all relevant concerns.

We already know they did harm. But what was the harm? How specific can we be? The greater the clarity we have, the more effectively we can act to repair the damage.

Jesse's choice to burn something in his room scared Joe because it put the safety of the house and its occupants at risk. Jesse's choice to not answer the door when his dad knocked on it left Joe uncertain about whether his son was conscious. It scared him. Joe's choice to break through the door, even though it was not the choice he regretted, did scare Jesse, but what really terrified Jesse was when his dad proceeded to tear the rest of the door apart. Jesse believed his dad wanted to tear him apart.

Clean-up: If we are to repair the damage that has occurred in the relationship we must clean up the mess. If I spilled the milk, I have to wipe it up. So, for each of the consequences we have been able to identify, there should be an action we take to ameliorate those effects. There are essentially two sets of actions which we are looking at here. One is the action we take to address the effects of the choices we made. The other is the action we take to address the effects of the choices the other made. We explore those a bit in a moment, but first, there is one other step in the process we want to include if we are to really do everything we can to repair the relationship.

Pattern: Especially when this event is a part of a pattern of events (and any event can be seen as part of a larger pattern) we want to figure out what the pattern is for the choices which are doing the harm and try to alter that pattern so we no longer make those choices. If we keep doing the same harmful things, or keep ignoring the harm which is being done to us, we won't actually heal the relationship.

So we end up with a series of steps in addressing a damaged relationship:

  • Identify the Event
  • Acknowledge the choices
  • Appreciate the consequences
  • Clean-up the mess
  • Alter the patterns

While these steps are the same for all relationship repairs, we have different names for what we are doing depending on whether the focus of our attention is on the choices we have made or if we are focusing on the choices the other has made. If I am naming my own choices which damaged the relationship, we call this an apology. If I am naming the choices the other made, we call this forgiveness.

To be sure, this is not what most people normally mean by apology and forgiveness. Indeed, I often hear back from people when I have suggested that the tools of apology and forgiveness are immensely powerful agents of healing, "I've tried that and it doesn't work." So I want to be clear about what I don't mean as much as what I do mean.

Many people confuse an apology with the statement that they are sorry. Certainly regret or remorse are important components of an apology, but they are not sufficient. For me to simply say I am sorry may be something that another finds reassuring, but if that is all I am saying I am stopping far short of what I am able to do. In some circumstances, I may even make things worse.

If you have a loved one die and I say to you, "I'm sorry," it may be comforting to know that I am concerned for you and your loss, but I am certainly not taking responsibility for any part of the event. If you have expressed distress at a choice I have made and I tell you, "I'm sorry you're upset," you may be appreciative that I have heard you and acknowledged what you have told me but you also might rightly be angry at me. I have in essence said, "I'm sorry you have the bad judgment to tell me how my behavior is affecting you." That is certainly not what I am suggesting we mean by an apology.

Similarly, we may confuse forgiveness with an offer to forget all about it. We may believe we are to "forgive and forget." As nearly as I can tell this notion comes from a passage in Hebrew scripture in which we are admonished to "forgive and remember not." Let me suggest that for us to not re-member an event is not the same as not holding it in our memory. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but I believe what is meant by this passage is that we are not to re-member, that is, to not re-create the event. When we are harmed and we feel an urge to get revenge and thus extract an eye for an eye, we are re-constructing or re-membering the event. So, no, we are not getting revenge, but neither are we forgetting. Better to forgive and remember in the sense of holding the event in our memory rather than reconstructing it in our relationship with the other.

In any case the reason to forgive is not to let the perpetrator off the hook. We are not forgiving to change the other; we are forgiving to change ourselves. In just the same way we are not apologizing to get the other to forgive us; we are apologizing to change ourselves in the wake of an event we regret so that we are less likely to construct a similar event in the future. The reason for me to apologize is for me to change myself. The reason for me to forgive is for me to change myself.


Joe started working on repairing the door frame and door the day after he tore them apart. The job took a couple of days what with letting glue set and paint dry. It gave Joe time to think about the events of that evening and what he wanted to do to repair his relationship with Jesse.

Jesse knew that his dad wasn't just ignoring what had happened. He was, after all, fixing the damage. And it was reassuring that the matter of his door was being addressed as his privacy was important to him. But the work on the door and frame also kept Jesse's attention on the events of that evening and on the choices he had made.

A couple of days later, as Joe was putting the hardware back on the door since the paint had dried; Jesse came into his room with his school books. Joe had been waiting for a good chance to talk and this was it.

"Jesse, I am really sorry about the way I acted in here a couple of nights ago. I was really angry and I took that anger out on your door and I expect that was pretty scary for you to see your dad lose it like that. It cost you your privacy this past couple of days, but more than that, I expect it may have made it hard for you to trust me. I want you to know that that is not the way I want to act when I am angry and I am working on paying more attention to my feelings so they don't surprise me like they did that night."

As Joe said this he was calm and looked right at Jesse. Then he paused. Jesse waited for the rest of it. He was expecting that his dad was going to launch into telling him all of the things he was mad about. But Joe just stood there and waited.

Jesse decided he would have to speak. "Well, Dad, thanks for fixing my door. And I know you were really angry... and I understand why... and I shouldn't have burned that paper in here... and I know it scared you when I didn't open the door but I was afraid and just wanted to be left alone... cause I was upset about breaking up with Lisa..." and as Jesse said this he felt his tears well up and his voice choked. Joe came towards Jesse and gave him a hug. He didn't say anything, just held him.

The best first thing to do to repair a damaged relationship is always to apologize. It must be a genuine apology for a choice you actually made which you fully regret. Joe really did regret tearing the door apart. So he started by cleaning up the mess. He fixed the door. Then he addressed the mess he had made with his son in his expression of rage by a full and clear apology.

Jesse knew what event his dad was talking about. He heard his dad be clear about which choice he was apologizing for. He knew his dad was aware of some of the consequences to him around fear, trust, and privacy. He had seen his dad fix the door and was now apologizing to him. And he heard his dad's commitment to continuing to pay attention to how he felt and expressed his anger.

Once Joe had done his work in making his apology he just waited in the space he had created. He didn't rush in to talk about all of the things Jesse had done. He simply enjoyed the fruits of his labor, the repaired door and the full apology. Jesse had not been consciously working on what he planned to say to his dad. In fact, he hoped they would never speak of it. But the quality of the emotional space which his dad had created drew Jesse in. He found himself stepping in and stepping up and opening up. And Joe was waiting to welcome him.

For Joe to do this he had to be clear about several things. First, he had to know that he was the only person he could change and to trust that that was enough. Second, he had to get clear that he was more committed to healing the relationship with his son than he was to being right or showing Jesse how he was wrong. If Joe had been hanging on to any shred of self-righteousness, his conversation with Jesse would not have ended in a hug.


You remember that back in Chapter Nine as we discussed accountability we observed an incident between Joe and Jane shortly after they married. Joe surprised Jane as she was cutting onions and she had a flash back to the time she was raped at knife point when coming home through the park. After that incident Jane decided she wanted help with her healing and joined a rape survivors group.

Just being in the presence of other women with similar experiences was comforting and upsetting. The leader of the group gave Jane time to get accustomed to the group and the women in it and didn't press her to talk about her experience for the first couple of meetings, but Jane knew her turn would come to her as she heard the stories of the other women. At some point she would have to describe the event.

We tend to resist reliving trauma. It was horrible the first time, why should we have to do it again? We can't change the past, so why not leave it alone? But there is an important shift which is necessary for healing. We need to go from being in the event to witnessing the event. We want to move the locus of our awareness from the center of the experience to a place outside of but focused on the events. Talking to others can help us do this. They are witnesses to the event. No, they cannot know what it was like. It is not their job as witnesses to have our experience. It is their job to help us become a witness to our own experience.

When it became Jane's turn to talk about what it was like for her that evening as she walked home through the park, she found that it was easier than she feared. She knew they would not blame or judge her. She had come to trust their strength and so was not worried that her story would be harmful to them. But she also found their curiosity to be soothing and enlightening. They wondered about things she hadn't really thought about.

One of the women asked her about her anger at herself for walking alone through the park. She found herself getting angry at the question. It seemed as though the question suggested that she shouldn't have been so bold as to walk by herself in a secluded area. She felt judged. But as the woman just stayed curious Jane discovered that she was not being judged, the woman really wanted to know if she were angry with herself and she discovered to her surprise that she was. There was a part of her which was very critical of her for her choices which put her at risk.

One very important aspect of healing for trauma survivors, especially for those who have been assaulted, is being able to look at the choices they made and come to clarity about whether those choices make them to blame for the harm which came to them. Yes, Jane chose to walk through the park. But, no, that doesn't mean she "asked for it."

Jane told the group about her meltdown in the kitchen when Joe came up behind her and found the she could come to see her behavior as perfectly understandable and acceptable, and at the same time confusing and blaming toward Joe. She was able to see that one of the consequences of the rape was defensiveness and anger in her relationship with Joe. She was clear that she wanted to dissolve those qualities as they arose with her beloved.

As we become aware of the consequences of the harm which has been done to us, we become clear about what we want to become able to clean up. We have to identify the mess before we can clean up the mess.

As Jane looked at the larger view of how her life had changed since the rape she could see that she was careful to not be alone in public places--she never went to the park when it wasn't crowded unless she had a companion--and she became a financial supporter of the rape crisis center. But she also watched to see that she not put onto Joe her feelings about the rapist. It still bothered her that he had never been caught and she found herself being angry that she hadn't been able to give a better description of him.

So Jane engages in healing of herself in the context of the event of the rape by working through a process of forgiveness. She becomes a witness to the event rather than only the one who experienced it. She clarifies which choices she made and whether those choices caused the event. She discovers all of the consequences of the event and does what she can to clean up from it. And she discovers the patterns in her life which the event had created and determines which she will continue and which she will work at changing. And she does all of this work of forgiveness without ever even knowing who her assailant was.

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