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Q&A: What is forgiveness, anyway?

Susan Shapiro’s new book explores what happens when people are wronged but apologies aren’t forthcoming.

Damage left by Trump supporters in the US Capitol. Can the vandals be forgiven if they don't show contrition?
Damage left by Trump supporters in the US Capitol. Can the vandals be forgiven if they don't show contrition?Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post

Susan Shapiro never dreamed that the memoir she’d been working on for a decade, “The Forgiveness Tour,” would be released during a time when half the country was trying to figure out whether and how it could forgive the other half.

After a falling-out with a trusted mentor of 15 years, the author and writing professor examined the nature of forgiveness by interviewing 13 people around the country who had been wronged and never received an apology. Her subjects included Manny Mandel, a Holocaust survivor, and Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian Muslim war survivor, who found healing only by speaking out loudly about the ethnic cleansing campaign carried out against his people.

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Shapiro’s new book suggests that forgiveness is not always possible — but healing is. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What does forgiveness really mean, anyway — what does it entail?

Each person I interviewed had a different method. One forgave to feel liberated but never wanted to see the person again. Another continued the same relationship without getting the words they wanted, letting kindness stand in. A mother-son duo talked everything out, cried together, and got much closer. In my case, I forgave my mentor but did not resume seeing him as an addiction doctor, though we had a healthier relationship and even co-authored a book together.

Can we forgive people who don’t think they did anything wrong?

Every religious leader I interviewed, over 10 years, had a different perspective, as did the 13 victims who shared wrongs never righted. Every relationship is distinctive, and each hurt has to be measured. In my case, a Hindu doctor and swami helped me focus on my mentor’s kindness for 15 years instead of his mistakes.

Your book seems to imply some offenses could never be forgiven.

You can move on and have a great life without forgiving someone. I don’t advise people to exonerate anyone quickly or easily, especially when it comes to murder and mayhem. In fact, I criticize the billion-dollar “forgiveness industry,” which promotes radically forgiving everyone for everything, as fake.

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How does forgiveness fit with current American politics?

After the election, Dave Chapelle told “Saturday Night Live,” “We have to forgive each other.” I thought, No we don’t. Especially when somebody dangerous isn’t atoning for their sins. Elements of an effective apology are: owning up to your mistake, asking forgiveness, showing you’ll never repeat it, and reparations. After the recent deadly mob violence at the Capitol, the president and the white nationalists who perpetuated the crimes have not copped to responsibility, apologized, sworn never to do it again, or offered reparations. Just the opposite. Since the president isn’t making restitution, and many in the fringe groups he fueled are threatening wider violence, the impeachment seems justified, as does jail. Undeserved presidential pardons only lead to more elitism and lawlessness.

Are there any common threads in forgiving people?

Those who received effective apologies, with reparations, could forgive easier. It was easier when someone was happy in love and work. The more difficult someone’s life, the more likely they were to cling to past grudges.

Can forgiveness ever be unspoken?

Yes. Some people in the book accepted changes or kindness from relatives who couldn’t say the words. Though my rabbi, Joseph Krakoff, who does hospice work, tells people [who are] dying the best way to leave the world is to tell their families: “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.”

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Erinne Magee is a freelance writer in Portland, Maine. Follow her on Twitter @erinnemagee.