Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
I grew up with five siblings, but after Dad died, our weak relationships went from bad to worse. To this day, two of my siblings and I get along fine. We've admitted to the pain we caused each other and asked for forgiveness. My relationships with the other three are not fine.
I've tried asking them what I did to cause them pain, and though their answers are vague, I figure if they're hurting, I need to ask for forgiveness. Each time, they say they want nothing more to do with me. I feel I am supposed to ask for forgiveness 7 times 70, but their cruel lies about me make me keep my distance from them.
I realize these three may not believe that they've hurt me, and that what they've done or said is perfectly fine, so they feel no need to apologize. But I am hurt, and I don't know what to do. How do I move on?
-- D., via email
The reason forgiveness is such a big topic in both Judaism and Christianity is that it's so hard and yet so human. It's hard to ask for forgiveness because it's hard to admit moral failure; and it's hard to forgive, because it's hard to let go of the feeling that we're victims rather than victimizers.
What can you do now?
My suggestion is that you try to create what I call a "blah-blah relationship" with these siblings. In my experience, there are three kinds of relationships we can have with people. We can love them, we can hate them, or we can blah-blah them.
We can hate people who've brutally crushed our lives and our hopes, but this is rare and dangerous. Hatred is a poison we take, expecting others to die. Some people do find a way to forgive even those who've hurt them grievously. Mark Twain wrote,
"Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it."
We can try to love others, and this is obviously the explicit teaching of the Bible (Hebrew and New Testament). It requires finding the parts of people that are not broken or perverted. This is, laudably, what you're trying to do, but it isn't working.
The third form of relationship is blah-blah. By that, I mean we make connections with others who still have agendas with us, but those connections are more or less superficial. We call for birthdays, we see them occasionally and we ask about the kids, but that's as far as it goes.
What we say is mostly some version of blah-blah. Blah-blah relationships don't force us into one of two unacceptable choices of either burning bridges with hatred or feigning a loving intimacy that's just not realistic at this time. Blah-blah maintains contact the way plants in the winter wait for the warmth of spring. Then, perhaps on a new and sunny day, our blah-blah relationships can grow and bloom into something more closely resembling authentic love.
You know I love stories and writing letters. Write to your siblings and tell them this story:
Two friends were walking through the desert, and during an argument one friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped wrote in the sand: "Today my friend slapped me in the face." Later in the journey, the one who got slapped got stuck in quicksand, and his friend pulled him out. He then wrote on a stone, "Today my friend saved my life." The friend said, "Why did you write on sand then and on a stone now?" The other friend replied: "When someone hurts us, we should write it down in sand, where the winds of forgiveness can erase it, but when someone helps us, we must engrave it in stone where no wind can ever erase it."
May you and your family learn to write your blessings in stone and your hurts in sand.
SEND QUESTIONS to Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4226, or email email@example.com.