Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive

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In our culture the belief that "To err is human, to forgive divine," is so prevalent that few of us question its wisdom. But do we ever completely forgive those who have betrayed us? Aren't some actions unforgivable? Can we achieve closure and healing without forgiving? Drawing on more than two decades of work as a practicing psychotherapist, more than fifty indepth interviews, and sterling research into the concept of forgiveness in our society, Dr. Jeanne Safer challenges popular opinion with her own searching ...
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Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It's Better Not to Forgive

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Overview

In our culture the belief that "To err is human, to forgive divine," is so prevalent that few of us question its wisdom. But do we ever completely forgive those who have betrayed us? Aren't some actions unforgivable? Can we achieve closure and healing without forgiving? Drawing on more than two decades of work as a practicing psychotherapist, more than fifty indepth interviews, and sterling research into the concept of forgiveness in our society, Dr. Jeanne Safer challenges popular opinion with her own searching answers to these and other questions. The result is a penetrating look at what is often a lonely, and perhaps unnecessary, struggle to forgive those who have hurt us the most and an illuminating examination of how to determine whether forgiveness is, indeed, the best path to take—and why, often, it is not.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a stimulating book that seeks to challenge the common wisdom, psychotherapist Safer (Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children) examines our Judeo-Christian concept of forgiveness. Though positioned for general readers, the tone and style of this book are more thoughtful than prescriptive; it will most likely find its market among mental health professionals and others with the background to absorb Safer's sophisticated arguments. The "intimate betrayals" involve hurtful behavior by family, lovers and friends, and exclude actions by strangers. Though marital infidelity is included, the majority of examples are of breaches between parents and children, some of which are quite disturbing. Forgiveness, Safer says, is not a "natural" reaction to damaging behaviors, though it's a cornerstone of our society. Drawing on her 25-year practice, she describes traumatic acts of family brutality, incest, alcoholism and compulsive gambling. She analyzes how the individuals involved have resolved their betrayals, evaluating each approach in relation to religious thought, as explained by a Jewish Reform rabbi and a Catholic priest. In essence, Safer is suggesting that a reasoned process for coming to terms with wrongdoing is more appropriate than the kind of blanket forgiveness that's prevalent today. The end result may not be forgiveness, but the value, she says, is in thorough examination and increased self-knowledge. The required steps in the process are "re-engaging" (with the betrayer, the act, the ensuing emotions and reactions) and "recognizing" the significance of the ordeal, which allow "reinterpretation" of the motives of both parties. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh of the Virginia Barber Literary Agency. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Safer, a therapist with more than 25 years of experience, claims that sometimes the only way to achieve inner peace is by going against the prevalent Judeo-Christian belief that forgiving your enemies is unequivocally the right thing to do. She distinguishes between true and false forgiveness and, rather than accepting that dichotomy, creates a new category she calls thoughtful unforgiveness. She points out that if you lie to yourself about having forgiven someone when you really haven't, you're going to cause yourself far more psychic pain than if you acknowledge that you are not yet ready to forgive. While this is not a particularly amazing bit of news, libraries that have collected some of the recent titles lauding forgiveness as a panacea may wish to add this book as an alternative viewpoint.--Pamela A. Matthews, Gettysburg Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A useful, intellectually and rhetorically nuanced work whose focus is more on not forgiving than on forgiving. Safer (Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, not reviewed), a New York City–based psychotherapist and journalist, argues that, on TV talk shows and elsewhere in American life, there currently rages an "epidemic of false forgiveness." Those who have been betrayed by parents or other family members, lovers, or once-close friends forgive too quickly and superficially, without really having confronted the in-depth betrayals and other serious breaches of trust they have suffered. Although Safer doesn't oppose interpersonal reconciliation, she believes "forgiveness is a three-part complex process of mourning and understanding," requiring one to "reengage with the experience of betrayal, recognize its emotional impact, and reinterpret its meaning from a broader prospective." A real strength: Safer avoids polarized thinking and presents many options; she contends there can be "partial forgiveness" (the forgiver and the betrayer are partly reconciled, but the forgiver retains partial anger) as well as "partial unforgiveness" (an individual and his or her betrayer resume contact without becoming reconciled). And she maintains that, when there is no remorse from someone who has committed a nearly soul-destroying act (for example, incest or extreme hostility toward a child on the part of a parent), not forgiving at all may be necessary for the victim's integrity, autonomy, and well-being. Safer occasionally lapses into psychobabble. But these are isolated exceptions to a generally clear, thoughtful, balanced effort filled with fascinating anecdotal material(including the author's struggle to achieve some forgiveness toward her philandering, family- and trust-shattering father). Safer rightly sees forgiveness as emotional "work" and as an important but hardly compulsory response in cases of interpersonal antagonism. In urging readers to choose a point on the continuum between total forgiveness and total unforgiveness, she strikes a significant blow against the kind of facile emotional mushiness sometimes celebrated by the media.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380975792
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 210
  • Product dimensions: 5.96 (w) x 8.57 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. has been a practicing psychotherapist for more than twenty years. She has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Utne Reader, Self, New Woman, and many other publications, and is the author of Beyond Motherhood, Choosing a Life Without Children. She lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Forgiving My Father


The Little Assistant

I have never visited my father's grave. By the time he died, when I was thirty-two, the man I had adored and whom I resembled, who had introduced me at age five as "my assistant" when I accompanied him on his hospital rounds and spun nightly fairy tales starring me, had become less than a stranger.

I know why it happened, but I am still unnerved and disturbed by my icy remoteness, by the seeming indifference with which I witnessed his weeping lament the last time we met that soon he'd never see his "little Jeanne Kitten" again. I turned away from him as he had once turned away from me, and I let him suffer and die alone.

I was my daddy's darling from the day I was born. "I told your mother that she had a little girl with big cheeks," he used to recount to me, "and I gave you special pills to keep you small." It was he who named me; my mother, convinced that a masculine name would confer a certain sophistication as well as provide a convenient pen name, had called me "Gene," which my father thankfully-prevailed on her to alter to "Jeanne" with the "e" pronounced so that I had a perpetual diminutive. This metamorphosed into "Jeanne Cat," which became the basis of nonsense rhymes he set to music and sang to me most of his life.

I always associate him with music. He was a retiring, shy, and serious anesthesiologist when that medical specialty was first being developed, and he invented various ingenious surgical devices that he never bothered to patent, but music was his hobby and means of self-expression. Into my teens, the mellow sounds of his clarinet or saxophone wafted from his officein the house he and my mother had designed and built. I used to take breaks from doing homework or even from talking on the telephone to sit with him in wordless communion while he played standards from the thirties and forties. And although I don't remember actively inviting him to listen, he'd often stop by as I played my guitar and sang one of my innumerable repertoire of folk ballads-all in minor keys about unrequited love-which I specialized in literally as well as figuratively in high school. At dusk, we used to take walks together in the yard he kept well manicured, inspecting the trees, the little bamboo grove, and the fat roses he'd selected for scent and color. Sometimes at night he would fall asleep himself in my room in the middle of telling me one of his stories about a bear and his princess.

Generosity was part of his nature. Having been raised with unnecessary penuriousness by immigrant parents, he compensated by acquiring and bestowing the best of everything. He wasn't flashy or extravagant, but craftsmanship and quality mattered to him, and shopping in discount stores was against his religion. Whenever my mother or I couldn't decide between two purchases, he always encouraged us to take both.

Unforced togetherness reigned in my family. My parents took me along on every vacation from the time I was six weeks old because, my mother explained with grudging approbation, my father couldn't bear to leave me with strangers. Although there was undoubtedly the classic mother/daughter rivalry for his affections-he found it easier to relate to a little assistant than to an adult woman-as well as marital tension, little of either surfaced. Our mutual need for accord caused them to shield me from, and me to minimize, what I later realized was major strife.

Despite the rumblings, my parents were as affectionate and playful with each other as they were with me. My mother's vivid liveliness complemented my father's wry introversion. Both had a need for harmony that forced conflicts underground, but I never doubted-and still do not-their genuine closeness and mutual appreciation in the early part of my childhood. They gave lavish parties where the guests never wanted to leave, traveled extensively, and spent my preadolescent years designing their home with a natural division of labor: he created the clever, elegant fixtures, she the bold, striking decor.

As is typical in physicians' families, my father was my in-house doctor until I left home. I went to a pediatrician for checkups, but he was the one who took care of me when I was sick or hurt. He was the master of the painlesscompensated by acquiring and bestowing the best of everything. He wasn't flashy or extravagant, but craftsmanship and quality mattered to him, and shopping in discount stores was against his religion. Whenever my mother or I couldn't decide between two purchases, he always encouraged us to take both.

Unforced togetherness reigned in my family. My parents took me along on every vacation from the time I was six weeks old because, my mother explained with grudging approbation, my father couldn't bear to leave me with strangers. Although there was undoubtedly the classic mother/daughter rivalry for his affections-he found it easier to relate to a little assistant than to an adult woman-as well as marital tension, little of either surfaced. Our mutual need for accord caused them to shield me from, and me to minimize, what I later realized was major strife.

Despite the rumblings, my parents were as affectionate and playful with each other as they were with me. My mother's vivid liveliness complemented my father's wry introversion. Both had a need for harmony that forced conflicts underground, but I never doubted-and still do not-their genuine closeness and mutual appreciation in the early part of my childhood. They gave lavish parties where the guests never wanted to leave, traveled extensively, and spent my preadolescent years designing their home with a natural division of labor: he created the clever, elegant fixtures, she the bold, striking decor.

Forgiving and Not Forgiving. Copyright © by Jeanne Safer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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