Forgiving, Forgetting and Remembering

If you’re trying to run for speed, Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast is not for you. (See also: The Diane Rehm Show.)

But if you’re doing a nice slow run as a spiritual and physical discipline, On Being is just the right show.

Today’s run featured Contemplating Mortality, with Dr. Ira Byock talking about “dying well.” I am fascinated by this topic, and it’s come to me several times recently in different forms, so perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something.

This topic is also hard for me to listen to, because the most profound death I’ve experienced in my life was a sudden death, not a slow, impending one.

A death that comes with a collapse to the floor, an ambulance screaming down the street, a tearful phone call late at night… I don’t know. There’s no doing that well or badly. I’m not even sure the person is the subject of the sentence; more like the object. Death happens to them.

So I get a little angry when I listen to shows like this. A prolonged death is no picnic, and I’m glad that Dad did not suffer. Still… there was no deathbed for my siblings and me to flock to, no heartwarming StoryCorps Legacy interview.

Then after getting angry, I decide that the only thing to do, if dying well isn’t always an option, is to live well.

Part of living well and dying well is about forgiveness. There are so many cliches around forgiveness, the most famous being to “forgive and forget.” You know I hate that, right? So pat. So simplistic. So inadequate.

I told you the phrase that came to me after Festival of Faith and Writing, yes? “Fighting back with nuance in a sloganeering world.”

The simpler something is, the less I trust it.

Anyway, they talked on the show about what forgiveness is all about, and Krista quoted Paul Tillich:

Forgiving presupposes remembering, and it creates a forgetting, not in the natural way we forget yesterday’s weather, but in the way of the great ‘in spite of’ that says: I forget although I remember. 

The whole show was great, despite my own residual anger and grief over Dad’s death. But it’s “the great ‘in spite of'” that will stay with me.

Fighting back with nuance.

20 thoughts on “Forgiving, Forgetting and Remembering

      1. susan

        I read only a smidgen in my intro to theology class. But then again, I’m the weirdo who didn’t take systematics (I did take theology, though–just not systematics. I did calvin, barth, intro, and liberation theology….you know all the usual!) I don’t really regret the lack of systematics, but I wish I’d read more Tillich and Luther.

  1. Mary Thorpe

    I suspect, congruent with what Tillich said, that there is a sorting out of the experience. What do we take with us in our memories? What do we release to God’s healing? If there is forgiveness necessary, is that a part of the releasing?

    My own father died very suddenly, when I was 17. It was a long process for me to deal with what he was in the dark side of his life (distant, alcoholic, angry) and what I wanted to keep of memories of him (loving in his own fashion, willing to take me to unusual places my mother wouldn’t have – like the bar he went to each Sunday after the 1 pm Mass). Until I sorted that, and released some of the dark things, I could not forgive him for leaving so many things unsaid, unapologized for, unreconciled.

    My mother, in contrast, had a long slow dying, but lived reasonably richly even to the end of her days. In the process of walking that path with her, we had the opportunity to reflect, to let go, to come to an uneasy peace about some things. It was a joint sorting, rather like her deciding who was going to get what object in her house after she died.
    And yet there was still some sorting to do after it was all over.

    The nature of the thing, and of us humans, I guess.

  2. Rachel Heslin

    I see the “forgetting” part of forgiveness as letting go of its emotional hold on you. It’s not like it never happened, but when you think of it, you don’t re-experience it in the same way.

  3. Shala Howell

    I remember two sermons from my childhood at St. Patrick’s. Or rather I remember moments of two sermons from my childhood. In one of them, Fr. Duca talked about the impossible expectations of “forgive and forget.” Being human, we aren’t going to forget every time someone has hurt us. The trick, he said, is to cease to remember. To stop reminding ourselves of the wrong — and to stop expecting that the act of forgiveness will erase all memory of it from our memory.

  4. Lou

    I love “fighting back with nuance” because simple is, well, so simple and life is much more than simple. Keep writing and inspiring. The blue room keeps me grounded. Peace.

  5. Bob Braxton

    that means to
    (that which we / I was not even aware I had forgotten).
    Read the roughly ten books by Alice Miller (European) and you may come out on a different spot regarding forgiveness and its importance. I started with “the Gifted Child” with a couple of pages in the back of the book. Having been abused in early childhood, I could read very few words before weeping and weeping as I read a little more and then a little more.

  6. Suzanne Walsh

    Thank you for this post MaryAnn, you prompted me to listen to the podcast which was very good. Having recently been through the experience of a loved one near death I would say that Dr. Byock’s observations are very relevant. It was tough to see my mother in law so close to the edge of life, however, the experience did act to bring the family together in a powerful way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could have this level of awareness without a life threatening event being the cause of it.

    Again, thank you!

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  8. Benjamin Eakin

    My father’s death also involved a collapse to the floor, sirens screaming, arriving too late. He was already gone. My mother’s death, on the other hand, was a blessing for us. Not that she died, of course, but that we have several months in which to say our goodbyes. Mother was at home under the care of my sister, my partner, and a wonderful hospice staff and chaplain. I believe her death was a model of dying well. She didn’t suffer much at all, thankfully, but bore what pain there was with dignity. This was the fourth bout with cancer and she was tired. It had spread too far and there would be no surviving it. I learned a lot of things about my mother in those last few months and am grateful for the experience. I’ll be writing about it in my own blog soon. In fact, I already written some about it in previous blogs, including Spare Parents, my tribute to all my parents. My mother made the experience of dying simply another part of her life. She was a dedicated Christian and had no fear of dying. She was concerned for her children, but not of the actual transition. I think, in fact, her death helped me deal with my father’s death better than I had in the past. Do I miss her? You bet. Do I believe I’ll see her again? You bet.

    1. MaryAnn

      It’s OK. The first time someone comments, I have to moderate it, which helps control spam.

      I appreciate your tender comment about your parents. Peace.

      1. Benjamin Eakin

        Thanks. I’m checking with support to see why the comment links back to the wrong place. I returned to church about three years ago after having left over 40 years ago. That started a most amazing journey. It was my friend, Judy, who suggested the link to Contemplating Mortality. Judy ended up being my mother’s hospice nurse, besides being a trusted friend. I trust her book suggestions. Many of them are on my reading list. And now, I am looking forward to your book, also.

  9. Scott

    I found Tilich a couple of years ago and my life has not been the same since. I enjoy reading Tilich early in the morning while sitting under the pecan tree in my front yard. A beautiful sun rise and Tilich. His work is a God sent…Thank you Lord.


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