The Personalist Project

Accessed on June 08, 2023 - 5:05:38

Forgiveness: What Completes It?  What Cripples It?

Michael Healy, Jan 21, 2012

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.”