In no way do I think Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant Jewish mystic, should be the expert on all subjects. But lately (and often) I do remind myself of the celebrated reply he made to the question: How many times should I forgive? The passage goes like this: ‘Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven."’
There’s interesting contextual nuance here in that Peter, the guy asking, is kind of a blunderer, as you probably know, and a hothead, often acting out hastily, reaching for his sword, and so on. Later, after Jesus is seized by the Romans, Peter is the apostle who denies Jesus (three times) to save his own neck. Nevertheless, Jesus, knowing well of all of this, says of Peter that he is the rock on which the church will be founded (this is perhaps sort of a pun because “Peter” in Latin is “Petrus” which means “rock,” from which we get, e.g., “petrified”). Peter later becomes, in essence, the first pope, in the decades after Jesus’ death. (And later still Peter is crucified himself, paying for his esteem in the usual way, through self-sacrifice.)
So: the guy doing the asking here about “siblings” and forgiveness, is a wobbly guy, nobody’s hero, both faint of heart and big-hearted at the same time. A verifiable human being. In the teaching moment, Jesus uses a generically large number to count the acts of forgiveness—490 times. He means that the number of these acts is immense, like the number my son uses (he’s four years old) to prove that he means business, “Sixty-four-eight-hundred-million-seven-thousand hundred.”
Among the reasons I remind myself of this scriptural passage, despite being a bad, barely observant Episcopalian, is because of trouble in my own family. It’s about three years now since a relatively trivial moment of discord with my parents, one quickly remediated, caused a far more difficult rift between myself and others further afield. It came at the worst possible moment, because my parents are elderly now, needing a fair amount of care, and nearly every decision in the present is conducted against this backdrop of friction. As you do, I miss what was.
My story is different from yours, in that there’s not a transparently afflicted person, unless that person is me. Mostly these are smoothly functioning folks, somewhat sturdy, though they are doing a mediocre job of getting along, of caring about one another. I bring up my story for two reasons: first, to say that I understand your anguish, owing to my own, and, next, to say that despite the inexact resemblance between your story and mine the principle of forgiveness is relevant nonetheless, in each case, as in so many cases of familial strife. Four hundred and ninety times. Or: Sixty-four-eight-hundred-million-seven-thousand hundred
What is it we accomplish with forgiveness, if it appears on the surface that we accomplish nothing at all? Perhaps we leave the door open for reconciliation, rather than shutting it permanently. We believe in the possibility of change. We kindle hope. Even if it is way off at the horizon. As you and I are contemporaries, Sibling, I’m betting your experience is like mine, in which calamitous change is a thing that can happen at any time. I think of my own sister’s death, as an example, but I think also of global calamity, the events of 9/11, the Pandemic, the Trump Presidency. I think I know of significant medical difficulty in your own story, which came out of the blue and wore out its welcome. There are passages in our lives when rapid, frequently terrifying change can and does take place. But there’s no principle that says that change can only announce itself in calamity. It can happen on the plus side of the ledger, too. Change is a thing that can happen, often when least suspected, an unsought visit from an old friend, or a job appears that was unexpected. Or, for example, on June 20, 1987, I decided not to have a drink, to stay open to not drinking that day, and very quickly, that day giving way to the next, my life was transformed. It has been ever since.
It bears repeating: if change is a thing that can happen, then change for the better has to be admitted as a possibility, even if we can’t see how it might come to pass. Forgiveness is the preparing of the land, the tilling of the seedbed, for the coming springtime of change. And yet: I don’t mean to suggest that there is not an important distinction to be made between forgiving and forgetting. I do not advocate forgetting, Sibling. I do not mean to suggest that the story you narrate, of significant adverse encounters with a family member, does not, after a time, become a reasonable predictor of future outcomes. As your therapist has noted. I have many active alcoholics among family and friends, and I have known well and cared about people with problems even worse than alcoholism. I often feel I know what barrage of misconceptions is going to emerge from the mouths of my afflicted friends before they even start. It is unreasonable to suggest that you should ceaselessly contact your sister so that she can berate you. Indeed, leaving her alone seems to be consistent with her wishes, as you have expressed them. And honoring her wishes is to be generous, is to give what can be given.
Instead, to me, the question is: what can you do on the inside to be at peace. What can you do to feel that you have been loving and kind, without running afoul of your sister’s overkill. That’s where a principle of forgiveness seems most useful, a principle of steadfast, unyielding forgiveness. In your own quiet, in your own peace, you can prepare the seedbed, by forgiving her. By saying it in your inmost self, and saying it carefully to the nearest and dearest who are able to listen. Saying it in silence, and saying it aloud (as, indeed, you have done, in your beautiful and sad letter to me, especially in these simple, powerful words: “I miss her”). After all, it’s more than possible that her pain is involuntary. Borderline personality disorder is not a choice. Who would not forgive the involuntary pain of others? Four hundred and ninety times.
Of exactly what does forgiveness consist might be the next question. I think you know well the answer, but I’ll say it again for anyone who is reading over your shoulder: forgiveness consists of love. Love is seeing the whole person, beyond the imprisonment of personality disorders and conflicts, remembering the whole person, the best version of them, love is the unveiling, the stripping away of pain, love is the rereading of history such that hope is uppermost, love is defiant belief, no matter what, and it is needing nothing in return. Forgiveness starts in this love.
You, Sibling, can forgive and love your sister no matter what she says or does, and especially you can do so for your niece, and for any succeeding generations. Doing so for succeeding generations is precisely the forgiveness that I recommend. In this way the road is prepared for the triumph of reconciliation, even if it doesn’t happen in this life, but only in some later dimension where the agonies of the bodily form fall away, in favor of an eternally burning spark. I wish I could say that there was a way to effect a reliable outcome here on earth, simply add MDMA and presto, but more often now I think the wish to produce a decisive result in another person is the grandest folly of all. The best we can do is to produce a result in ourselves, even if totally silent, even if done invisibly, even if our work is apparently futile as judged by the behavior of others. Love is transformative, is the highest calling, and it’s right here at hand.
Peter says: how many times should I forgive “my brother,” and he seems to mean everyone, not just his actual brother. He means his family, too, and yours, and mine. If I’m lucky I’ll live 35 more years. That means 14 more times forgiving when “sinned against” per year, in each and every year remaining, one per month, at least, or maybe two. I’d better get busy. If you want, we can compare notes as we go. That is, unless the number is sixty-four-eight-hundred-million-seven-thousand hundred times, wherein forgiving is effectively constant.
Rick Moody, Life Coach