I continue to think a great deal about forgiveness and the last couple days I've been thinking in particular about making amends. In twelve step programs, step nine is: "made direct amends to such people as you have harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others." Great words to live by. Hard to do - really hard to do, but great words to live by. Except for two things.
First of all, it is not always clear to me when "making amends" would actually injure the person further. There are times when this should be obvious. For the brief period of time that I was in a twelve step program (good Lord, was that 25 years ago now??), I heard about some unbelievably bad decisions by people "making amends". One of the most obvious of these was the decision of a man to apologize to his secret girl-friend's husband about their long term affair, an affair the husband previously knew nothing about. How he could think this wouldn't "injure them or others" to do so is a little bit beyond me. In this case, "making amends' should have looked like ending the affair and possibly encouraging openness between the partners in the couple, but leaving the ultimate decision about the timing of the revelation and the mode of the revelation (or even the decision to reveal) to the wife rather than imposing his confession on both of them and their relationship. His decision to "make amends" in this way tore the family apart, injuring everyone involved, including several children. He chose to relieve his own guilt, free himself from the burden of his guilt at the expense of other people, a decision that was obvious to the rest of us listening but continued to be an elusive observation to the man himself. But the thing is, we all have blind spots. We all do. It is not always clear what our intentions are when we choose an action, even to ourselves, and usually we have more than one purpose in choosing a course of action. Sometimes we can fail to be completely honest with ourselves about what those purposes are. And sometimes we have cross-purposes in our decisions which make choosing a course of action difficult. For example, (again, this was 25 years ago when I was in this 12-step program), one of the members of our group was struggling with a friendship that had ended explosively but also absolutely. It took her a few weeks to figure out her part in the situation, and at the point at which she did, she realized that she had some apologizing to do. But she wasn't sure if it was best to make amends, especially at that point in time. The friend she'd lost had been very clear that the relationship was over, and she was worried that if she apologized for her part in it that she might be picking at a scab that was best left alone to heal on its own. On the other side, she worried that if she didn't make amends, it was actually just cowardice on her part - fear of the anger that would come her way. It just is not always clear what is best. In this case, she chose to make amends - and found that it did do exactly what she had feared. The angry tirade of "I told you never to speak to me again!" which came back to her made it clear that she had caused more injury than she had made amends by reaching out. But she didn't know ahead of time - she couldn't have known.