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When not to forgive

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Mykyta Dolmatov

"This moment calls for healing and reconciliation," former President Donald Trump announced after the Capitol riot he instigated. Disingenuous to the end, he since promoted the idea that time heals all wounds. I prefer Fanny Brice's quip that time wounds all heels. Democratic leaders Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are more generous, promising to "unite our country and heal the soul of our nation." Even the irreverent comedian Dave Chappelle told "Saturday Night Live": "We have to forgive each other."

But what if we don't? Aren't there times that turning the other cheek is the wrong direction?

I pondered that question after a trusted mentor betrayed my trust and refused to apologize. The billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry promotes radical forgiving from every channel. Yet interviewing 13 victims of wrongs never righted taught me that forgiving is a personal decision, and it's safer to be discerning. Questioned carefully, many religious leaders delineated limitations of absolution and situations unworthy of mercy. Here's when fast forgiveness could hurt you:

1. WHEN PERSONAL SAFETY IS COMPROMISED: Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, a 75-year-old cancer survivor, tested positive for COVID-19 after six Republican members of Congress refused to wear masks during the Capitol uprising. A colleague's family chastised her for refusing to attend an inside New Years' gathering. The effects of holiday events and the riot in Washington, D.C., are hitting hospitals and graveyards now; a record 4,327 Americans died in one day recently. There's no forgiving this dangerous behavior. Better to enforce a mask mandate and stay alive to hold a grudge.

2. WHEN FORGIVING CRIME HELPS CRIMINALS: The FBI is rounding up members of the mob who tried to overthrow the government and investigating which police and Republican lawmakers were complicit while the Senate is beginning its trial on the impeachment of the former president. If they didn't respond strongly, white nationalists could have a lasting impact on our democracy.

3. WHEN THE PARDONING PROCESS IS CORRUPT: Presidential pardons of criminals who curried favor with politicians only weaken our country and lead to lawlessness. Trump's 73 last-minute pardons, including to many of his allies, mock the justice system. Even former Vice President Mike Pence broke with his boss, rejecting calls to reject results of the November election and choosing to attend Biden’s inauguration.

4. WHEN THERE'S NO REGRET: There should be no mercy without remorse. Kenan Trebinčević, exiled at age 12 during the Christian Orthodox Serbs' 1993 ethnic-cleansing campaign against Muslims in the Bosnian war, remains shocked that it ended in stalemate. There was no admission of guilt or punishment for the men who massacred more than 100,000 of their neighbors. That led to a 25-year Balkan stalemate, nationalism rising, stagnant economy, and no healing. Only by publicly rallying against the injustice did Trebinčević find peace as a spokesperson for his people.

5. WHEN "I'M SORRY" IS INSUFFICIENT: The United States officially apologized five times: for slavery, shielding Nazis, interning Japanese citizens during World War II, overthrowing the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, and for the racist Tuskegee medical experiments. And how are our race relations going? Words are meaningless without action. Despite war treaties, tribunals and formal statements, I've never met a survivor of genocide who exonerated their oppressor. For Manny Mandel, a Holocaust survivor, the reparations helped his family move on and he managed to thrive — out of spite.

6. WHEN PREJUDICE PREVAILS: The spread of nationalism has led to an increase in hate crimes throughout the country. It's worse when the hate seeps into your family. Alison Singh Gee, a Los Angeles journalist, was brokenhearted when her mother-in-law made negative comments about the looks of Alison's multi-racial daughter. She kept her distance until her husband's mother relented, showering love on her beautiful granddaughter. Emillio Mesa, a gay San Francisco party planner, was horrified that his mother repeated a homophobic story. They only reconnected years later, after she accepted him fully.

7. WHEN YOU AREN'T READY: Experts claim it's healthier to let go of anger. Yet after she was dumped by her long-term girlfriend who refused to apologize and reneged on financial promises, writer Kate Walter didn't feel her ex deserved forgiveness. Instead, she found creative solutions to soothe her soul: yoga, meditation, a new church and publishing a memoir about her hurt. There isn't one forgiving blanket, but many ways to move on. Owning your resentment can be more authentic.

8. WHEN YOU'RE PUSHED: Forced or fake apologies can lead to recidivism and regret. When she was 16, Sharisse Tracey's father raped her. Their church's pastor and a psychiatrist both insisted on forgiveness, to keep the family together. Then her father tried again. Sharisse has since strayed from organized religion and makes her own decisions, wary of authority figures, which can be a more spiritual and moralistic choice. In fact, according to the book "Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage In the Holocaust," those most likely to save victims of Nazis in World War II were independent-minded people who resisted patriarchy and group-think.

9. WHEN CONDITIONS AREN'T MET: Effective apologizing must: acknowledge the offense, explain, express remorse, and offer reparations. You can also request specific compensations. To forgive the drunken driver who killed his wife and two children, Michigan jeweler Gary Weinstein stipulated that the alcoholic's license be permanently taken away so he could never harm anyone else on the road.

10. WHEN DEALING WITH DOMESTIC ABUSERS: "The concept of forgiveness can be weaponized to fast track redemption at the expense of victims' healing and justice," wrote British artist Sophie King. "It can be a tool used to make men's lives easier and allow them to control when women should get over crimes they've committed and negate their victims' feelings." Indeed, many traumatized people, despite being victimized, are blamed for their trauma, according to therapist Anastasia Pollock, who specializes in treating incest and childhood abuse. She tells patients: "You don't have to forgive to move on."

Neither do you.

Susan Shapiro, a New School writing professor, is the author of "The Forgiveness Tour: How To Find The Perfect Apology."

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