Friendships are the great overlooked love affairs of our lives. On the hierarchy of emotional connections, we place even our dearest friends several rungs beneath lovers and family, and only slightly higher than colleagues, all too often, in the pecking order of who gets attention.
Friendships are affairs of the heart, however, whether or not we acknowledge it. Friends hurt our feelings, get under our skin, betray us, dump us, lead us on, seduce us and do many of the hurtful things that lovers and family do. Yet we have no protocol for healing these wounds. Lovers kiss and make up, families hold to tradition, but friends flounder when complications arise. We feel compelled to mend romantic and filial troubles but incline toward letting friendship issues slide, beginning with forgiveness.
We avoid, all too often, the challenge of “the courageous conversation,” as poet David Whyte calls it. We imagine that friendship will simply absorb, like some great sponge of love, troubled feelings, unsaid truths, and other inconvenient rufflings, leaving the friendship spic-and-span. We want to view friendship as a time-out from pathos and intensity (we have enough of that in our other relationships), which explains why friends break up rather than having to deal, wasting the intimacy between them.
That’s what happened to Beth and Alfred (not their real names). After 30 years of friendship, Beth — who had a critical streak — finally went too far with Alfred, who tended to opt for laissez-faire. In her zeal to help Alfred get over a problem that he did not believe was a problem, Beth said something to him in public that sent Alfred over the edge. He was homicidally angry at her and could not think of forgiveness. Alfred was one of those long-fuse types who can’t rebound once they’re pushed too far. Beth realized that he was angry but figured that Alfred would come to see that she was right, and come back around. She was gravely mistaken.
Alfred had a crisis of faith about Beth. He doubted that she respected him or got him in any significant way. He boiled over with unexpressed venom, obsessing over Beth’s mindless remark and repeating the story ad nauseum to other weary members of their circle. Alfred had two choices, we told him. He could have it out with Beth or call their friendship quits. Alfred had a better idea, though, he thought, opting for the guy solution. He could say nothing, pretend to be civil, avoid Beth as much as possible and disappear behind an invisible wall of contempt that Beth could not penetrate.
This war between friends was painful to watch and also very instructive. These two highly intelligent people had logged years of therapy between them in (in fact, one was a therapist). But when it came to forgiving one another, breaching their own resistance and offering an olive branch, these two friends were completely clueless.
Forgiveness is a selfish act. This is the secret they hadn’t considered. Trapped inside their respective forts, Beth and Alfred didn’t see that forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, first. I learned this first from Eva Eiger, a Jewish woman quoted by Terrence des Pres in his classic book, “The Survivor,” about life in the Nazi death camps. Eiger told him, “Forgiving is a selfish act to free yourself from being controlled by your past.” This does not mean we condone offenses, nor that we absolve those who hurt us.
This is the great misunderstanding that stops forgiveness from happening. Not wanting to give the offender the satisfaction of being forgiven, we refuse to budge from our positions. This is like swallowing poison, as the saying goes, and waiting for the other person to die. But forgiveness is an inside job that has nothing to do with the other person. It requires nothing from the offending party — no apology, no confession, no recompense. Instead, we are free at every moment to spring the locks on our inner jail (the one that gives us ulcers), set the prisoners free, and not get stuck feeding our demons.
Forgiveness is a form of self-care. Documentary director Helen Whitney, whose film, “Forgiveness: A Time To Love and a Time to Hate,” examines this complex issue, told me that “we talk about forgiveness” but “we should really talk about forgivenesses. There are as many ways to forgive as there are people needing to be forgiven.” She adds that this does not mean continuing relationships after forgiveness has taken place (remember, it’s an inside job). It just means moving on, emotionally, when the time is right for us, and letting bygones be bygones.
Alfred and Beth are still working on this. They have made modest progress so far. Alfred no longer expects a mea culpa from Beth, and she no longer thinks he will see her point. They both admit that they miss their friendship and would even be happy to get together, provided the other one made the first move.
Their friendship, if it continues, will change, and be grounded on agreeing to disagree about what went down between them. This is how it always is, agreeing to disagree, when people, being people, make mistakes and neither side is exactly wrong. We’re imperfect beings with fragile hearts and skin as thin as tissue paper. We make mistakes and say stupid things. Forgiveness is the price of admission to every kind of love affair. Or else, we might as well forget it.