The Personalist Project

As the title implies, I want to offer two thoughts on forgiveness.  

First, forgiveness is really not complete until the full trust of the love relationship is reestablished.  Thus there would seem to be two main stages or challenges to the process of forgiveness: 1) achieving (and extending) forgiveness in the first place for a serious wound or offense and then 2) achieving the rebuilding of the full bridge of mutual love and trust.  If you have forgiven a person or persons, but no longer rejoice in their presence the way you once did, no longer have an intimacy and openness with them as you once did,  keep them at arms’ length emotionally, much less if you do not want to even be with them or see them, thus have not really reestablished the love relationship with them, then the forgiveness is not complete.  Fortunately, this is not the way God, in and through Christ, treats us.  Neither should we leave things this way between ourselves. 

This completion of forgiveness—through the full reestablishment of love—is illustrated in a short story by John O’Hara, “The Man on the Tractor,” from the collection The Hat on the Bed.  In this story a couple married for four decades, but whose relationship has suffered through an infidelity, returns to their hometown where they originally fell in love.  Returning to their old haunts reminds them of those days and they rediscover their early love.  They’ve been very busy meeting old friends, etc., but finally, the husband finds the time to take his wife out to the place where they first kissed and fell in love years ago and they share another tender kiss. The scene is described as follows: 

[She asks,] “Where are we headed for?”

“You’ll soon see,” he said.

“Oh, then I guess I know,” she said.

After a while he drove off the main highway and up into the hills, and presently stopped the car on a township road, midway between two farmhouses.  “Are you going to kiss me?” she said.

“Don’t you think I ought to?”

“Yes, I do,” she said.

He kissed her on the lips, and when he drew away she was looking down at the floor, vaguely smiling.  “That was very nice of you,” she said.

“I feel rather self-conscious about it,” he said.  “But it’s about the only chance we’ll get.”

“Do you know something, George?” 


“After twenty-five years, twenty-seven, whatever it is, this is the first time I’ve really felt that you’ve forgiven me for Tommy Williams.”

“Really? Well, maybe it is the first time. I don’t know.” 

“I forgave myself a long time ago,” she said.

He laughed.  “I’m sure you did.”

“Oh, it wasn’t as easy as all that.  A girl that’s made a damn fool of herself—first she has to justify herself.  Then she has to forget all about that and start being honest with herself—if she can.  And I did.  And that was when I was harder on myself than you ever were.  It was at least a year before I could forgive myself for what I did to you and to myself.”

“I didn’t realize it’d taken you that long,” he said.

“I know you didn’t.  That’s why today, just now, is the first time I feel that you’ve really forgiven me.  All those years in between, you took me back and we’ve been nice to each other but there’s always been something missing.  Why is that?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve had it in my mind that I wanted to come here, to this very spot where I first kissed you over forty years ago.  And I planned to kiss you…. And I wanted to bring you here and tell you that I’ve always loved you.  Here, where I told you the first time.”

“Then what I felt was right,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“From now on I guess we have to be ready for anything,” she said.

“Yes, he said.  With the tips of his fingers he caressed the back of her neck….

“Thank you,” she said….

“Here comes a man on a tractor,” he said. “He thinks we’re lost.”

Now this “slice of life” scene not only illustrates my first point about the reestablishment of intimate love as the fulfillment of forgiveness, but also anticipates the second point, i.e., that what hinders and cripples forgiveness is lack of honesty—either between people or with oneself.  It is impossible for forgiveness to be “completed,” even with the best of intentions, if the one on the receiving end is untruthful or in some way a liar.  Von Hildebrand in The Art of Living, distinguishes three kinds of liars or untruthful personalities.  First, the conscious, artful liar who knows exactly what he is doing and is trying to deceive.  Second, the man who primarily lies to himself, deceives himself, refuses to face reality, and then passes on his truncated view of things to others, half in good faith.  Thirdly, is the man of fake or ungenuine responses, who doesn’t seem to realize that his attitudes are not deeply grounded in reality contact so he presents the fake article, the fake response, as if it is genuine.  No one can fully forgive someone who is a liar in any of these three senses. The offer of forgiveness is crippled in the receptor. 

Even God Himself cannot “complete” his whole-hearted, willing, and intended forgiveness toward the one who was “a liar from the beginning.”



Comments (15)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Jan 21, 2012 11:19pm

I agree very much

1) that forgiveness is not complete until love and trust are restored


2) that dishonesty and denial on the part of the wrong-doer  prevent it.

I don't much care for the story, though.  I have a reaction against the "forgiving myself" idea, and against her conceit about being "harder on herself" than he was and so on.

It seems to me she would have done much better if she had just wept.

Michael Healy

#2, Jan 22, 2012 1:35am

Awwwww! I really liked that scene; thought it was well done.

Seriously, I don't think it has to be read as self-conceit (i.e., further dishonesty); in fact, the whole thing only works now between them because of deeper honesty.  And "forgiving oneself" is a very serious moment which requires finally facing what you've done--doesn't have to be interpreted as excusing oneself.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jan 22, 2012 8:38am

Michael Healy, Jan. 22 at 1:35am

And "forgiving oneself" is a very serious moment which requires finally facing what you've done--doesn't have to be interpreted as excusing oneself.

Do your quote marks mean to indicate that it's not exactly forgiveness?

I don't think I get what it means to forgive oneself, though I do understand and agree that at times we need to be merciful toward ourselves, at least in a sense.

If I do a serious wrong, then it is God's forgiveness along with my victim's whose forgiveness I need, not my own. Right?

Michael Healy

#4, Jan 22, 2012 8:51am

Yes, quote marks seemed appropriate because, like love, forgiveness unfolds its full essence interpersonally.  Yet, just as there is a valid sense to self-love, I think there is a valid sense to forgiving oneself--as part of an alternative on the one hand to self-disgust and despair (which might end in suicide) and on the other hand to self-avoidance (leading to continued superficiality, dishonesty, and flight).

Jules van Schaijik

#5, Jan 22, 2012 9:01pm

I agree, Michael. In fact, I came here specifically to say something similar, only to notice you had beaten me to the punch.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jan 23, 2012 9:44am

What I especially like in your second thought is how clearly it shows that there are situations in which the lack of the fullness of forgiveness isn't caused by "unforgiveness" or hard-heartedness on the part of the victim, but by dishonesty and/or unreality and lack of due contrition on the part of the offender.

This is a point all too often overlooked in what passes for Christian teaching on the subject.  

Jules van Schaijik

#7, Jan 23, 2012 10:38am

Katie van Schaijik, Jan. 23 at 9:44am

... there are situations in which the lack of the fullness of forgiveness isn't caused by "unforgiveness" or hard-heartedness on the part of the victim.

That is a very important point. Without it, as a student once put it to me, one places the victim way too much at the mercy of the culprit, making it hard for her to recover from the injury and move on with her life. It is difficult enough, this student argued, for the victim to get to a place where she can genuinely forgive her wrongdoer. It is both cruel and unjust to also hold her responsible for the culprit's unwilingness or inability to properly receive the forgiveness.

Mary McManus

#8, Jan 23, 2012 4:02pm

I guess I'm missing something.  Isn't reconciliation a separate act from forgiveness? What if a family member or a "friend" has committed a criminal act against your child, for example?  If you have "forgiven" them, but cannot, for the sake of your child's safety, reestablish the loving relationship you once had with them, is it not forgiveness?  

Jules van Schaijik

#9, Jan 23, 2012 5:23pm

Mary McManus, Jan. 23 at 4:02pm

I guess I'm missing something.

On the contrary! You're on to something. It is quite possible that forgiveness has been truly extended, and also truly received, but that restoring the relationship (going back to the way it was) is neither wise nor possible.

Definitely a good, important distinction.

Michael Healy

#10, Jan 23, 2012 7:03pm

Mary and Jules--I agree Mary's point is a good addition or qualification.  I still think forgiveness is not complete (or perfected if you will) without the full reestablishment of loving trust, but that may have to await our final reconciliation in Heaven.  Mary's example about the defense of the child is telling.  Can't take any chances there.

Gregory Borse

#11, Feb 6, 2012 11:25pm

I think it absolutely does--not just in some cases, but in all cases--await our final reconciliation in heaven.  1). because we cannot know with certainty either the myriad ways in which our sins injure ourselves or others to whom harm has been done, our confessions of wrongdoing can never be truly complete and 2). because forgiveness itself does not erase the consequences of our actions.  My father and I had this conversation years ago, as he confided to me that he wished that a particularly painful episode in the family might end in everyone just forgiving each other and getting back to being a family:  I told him then--but, don't you see?  We can forgive--but justice still demands that the consequences of the sin play themselves out.  You cannot ask that those simply be erased by some kind of magic.  Christ himself asked that the bitter cup not be required if the Father willed it--but, in the end, accepted that bitter cup because Adam's sin required it.  Divine Mercy and Divine Justice, as either Chesterton or Lewis had it, are ever in tandom.  And self-forgivness?  I understand the verbiage, but I think it's an attempt to describe something else.

Katie van Schaijik

#12, Feb 6, 2012 11:44pm

Having just written an article, "Conjugal love is not an act of the will," I am contemplating a new one: "Forgiveness is not an act  of the will."

I like your point about justice, Gregory.

I remember Alice von Hildebrand teaching me (via Socrates) that injustice causes "a metaphysical disharmony" that is set right by punishment.  Or penance.  

Our aim, if we've done wrong, shouldn't be to get the other to forgive us and "move on", but rather to set things right again, as best we can.

Gregory Borse

#13, Feb 6, 2012 11:59pm

Epic--which I'm teaching right now, is, in many ways, about the fact that death itself is an uncanny and metaphysical "wrong" or, as your Alice has it, a "disharmony."  With what?  With the universe.  And how did it get introduced?  By sin.  Christ's act does not erase death--it reconciles us to our Father even while it does not erase the consequences of our own act(s).  How can we love the Father truly without learning from Him that He meant what He said when he uttered each of our names?  They mean only insofar as our freely chosen acts--even when they are selfish and sinful--are everlasting.  He means what he says--he said us (into being) and he told us we were free.  And so we are.  Even to the extent that we can make of ourselves our own gods and live out the eternity we invent thereby. It''s perhaps a bad business to begin mucking about in trying to forgive ourselves not merely because we cannot--but mainly because there is no such thing.

Jules van Schaijik

#14, Feb 7, 2012 6:07am

Gregory, I don't much care for the term "self-forgiveness" either. However, I do think that part of the sinner's task—after genuine remorse and repentance, and after attempting to make it right with the person(s) he has injured—is to learn to accept himself (while hating his sin). Crosby's post on self-love is very helpful on this point.

Also, don't you think there is a sense of deep reconcilliation that can be achieved even though the consequences of sin are real, and accepted as such? Dr. Peter Damgaard-Hansen, who gave a talk for us a few months ago, describes the union that can be achieved after sin, as a union in suffering. This kind of union is not the same as obtained before, but, he says,

is actually just as good! When we are united in suffering, we are in communion with each other. And communion is the very trademark—and longing—of love. It is isolation that is the problem, and communion that is the solution. Whether we enter into this experience of communion through the door of happiness (like when in love) or through the door of suffering (like in reconciliation) in a certain sense is irrelevant.

Sounds both true and consoling to me.

Gregory Borse

#15, Feb 7, 2012 10:35am

Monkey-rope!  Yes, Jules--you've expressed nicely what I was trying to get at:  "reconcilation that can be achieved even though the consequences of sin are real, and accepted as such."  Perhaps even more precisely, because the consequences of sin are real and accepted as such."  As Melville describes such a communion-in-suffering the vicissitudes of this fallen life:  "It was a humorously perilous business for us both. For, before we proceed, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequag's broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one.  So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequag sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cuttng the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. . ."

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?