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The Path To Forgiveness Doesn’t Start With ‘I’m Sorry’

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When my kids do something jerk-worthy, I would love for them to feel some sort of remorse or empathy for their actions. Usually their need to make amends comes from being rude to me or an asshole to one of their siblings. It’s all par for the course in being a kid and being human. We lash out, we make mistakes, and we need to make decisions on how to do better even when that means we need to be vulnerable and be held accountable. That’s a lot for most adults to do, so I don’t expect my kids to be great at true remorse and reconciliation. It’s not like they’re doing adult-like damage—stealing toys, throwing fits, and name-calling are no-nos, but small infractions.

One thing I have taught them is that saying “sorry” for something you did wrong is not enough to get you off the hook. It can be part of the repair, but my hope is that once one of my kids realizes they fucked up, they check in with the person they hurt with their words or actions. I have also taught them that an apology isn’t always met with forgiveness. They may not get it, and they are not obligated to give someone theirs.

I teach my kids these lessons because I practice them. When it comes to my mother, however, I struggle to follow my own advice.

I am not in contact with my parents. I haven’t talked to my father in 20 years or more, and made peace with this shortly after our last interaction. My separation from my mother happened two years ago, and while it was a necessary break-up from toxicity, I carry guilt and frustration for my inability to forgive her even though she has apologized for her mistakes. She wants to be a part of my life and to re-establish relationships with my kids.

I have wondered if I should try to let her in with strict boundaries, but the thought still makes me panic. Why do I feel so bad about keeping her out of my life when it’s what’s best for me? Why am I more worried about her pain than my own? I worry I am still holding onto the past in unhealthy ways. I convince myself I am selfish or irrational for not being able to move on from childhood abuse, even though her behavior bled into more mistakes and inappropriate dependency throughout my adulthood. Why can’t I accept my mother’s words and admission of guilt? She has apologized so many times.

I have asked my therapist and friends these questions too, but have yet to answer them with any long-term satisfaction. I’m not religious, so I don’t ask my faith to provide guidance. I am a fan of self-awareness and accountability. Not self-help, per se, but self-exploration — and one of my favorite places to turn over ideas about who I am is in places of sobriety with other sober people.

I also find guidance in podcasts. The podcast called The Confessional, hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber, checks all of the above. Bolz-Weber is an ordained Lutheran Pastor, founder of House for All Sinners & Saints in Denver, Co, and an addict in recovery who has created a church for all of the queers, addicts, and misfits who want and need God but without all the political and dehumanizing bullshit. She’s also a bestselling author and all-around badass.

One of the most recent guests on The Confessional, which Bolz-Weber calls “a car wash for our secrets and shame,” was Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who came on to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness. She spent 20 minutes outlining the ideas of Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher, on what he says are the five steps a person needs to take to be fully repented. I swear I am not religious, but I know a good lesson when I hear one, so stay with me. Ruttenberg says the five steps to forgiveness are as follows:

1. Confession

In order to really repent and express regret or remorse, the first thing you need to do is articulate the harm you did and do it in a public way that holds you accountable.

2. Transformation

Start the work to be better. Read a book, go to rehab, or try therapy. Take steps to change.

3. Amends

Make the hurt better through reparations.

4. Apology

Only after the first three steps do the words “I’m sorry” come into play.

5. Choosing Differently

If you have the chance to do the same harm but make a different choice, then you have done the work and have changed.

Until those steps are taken while keeping the victim at the center of the work, then reconciliation and forgiveness are hard to come by. I listened again as Ruttenberg talked about centering the victim. Maimonides said the focus always has to be on the harm done and how best to make it better. Forgiveness may never happen, but the person who did the harm needs to do everything possible to fix and reduce their mistakes. That may mean not showing up, respecting boundaries, and adhering to other requests a victim makes to help themself feel safe.

It took 20 minutes to understand two years of my struggle. My mother hasn’t fully recognized my hurt and done the work to repair the harm she caused. She has focused more on her own pain than mine. And there are only so many apologies I can hear before I expect another reason to hear it. For too long, she was focused on her needs and on the belief that words were more powerful than actions. It’s still too hard for me to believe she has changed.

I appreciate my mother’s apology, but I am okay with leaving acceptance in purgatory. I am giving myself grace because I realized I haven’t been withholding forgiveness; I just haven’t seen, or believed in, my mother’s ability to repent.

I still hurt, and am going to allow myself to stay safe.

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