Forgiving a Hurtful Relative

Peach trees in blossom at Thich Nhat Hahn’s Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, CA. @Lane Igoudin

It is a traditional practice on High Holidays to forgive others for the wrong they’ve done to you, and to ask for forgiveness in return.

It’s easy to do when you are close, like my Dad and I. We talk on the phone several times a week: What’s new? How’s your health? Did you hear about…? Do you want me to send you..? He forwards to me daily, relentlessly, emails, IMs, Facebook posts, WhatsApp posts, on just about any subject he thinks I might be interested in. We don’t always agree politically, but we love each other, and are always there for support.

It’s much harder to forgive someone who hurt you. Memories of abuse, wounds open up. You don’t want to go into those places. And now you’re supposed to remember them and let go – just because a calendar date for forgiveness is approaching?

I’ve lost, for instance, relationships with some people who couldn’t accept me for who I am, who couldn’t embrace my husband, our marriage, and our kids.  

Do I forgive them?


And here I am guided by two teachings. One of them is a meditation practice offered by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist master. I found this talk during one of my retreats at Hahn’s monastery in Escondido, California, in the mid-2010s, and it stayed with me. I’ve copied an excerpt below, with slight edits for grammar and style.

If you have a family album [with] a picture of your father as a five-year-old, that’s a good object of meditation. Look at him, breathe in and out, and see the child that is still alive in him and in your own self. As a five-year-old boy, he could get hurt very easily by your grandpa or your grandma [or] by other people. So if sometimes he’s rough, he’s difficult, sometimes he behave[s] very rude to you, that’s because of that, because he had been hurt as a child. And if you understand that, you [will not be] angry at him anymore. And suddenly your anger will melt, and you will have compassion, and feel much better. Breathing in, I see my father as a five-year-old child. Breathing out, I smile to that five-year-old boy who was my father.

Breathing in, I see my mother as a five-year-old girl. Breathing out, I smile to [her]. When my mother was five years old, she was also vulnerable, fragile, and she may [have gotten] wounded very easily, and had [no] teacher or a friend to help her to heal. That’s why the wound, the pain, continues in her. That is why sometimes she doesn’t behave very kindly to you, and you understand why because she hadn’t been able to heal the pain in her. And if you can see your mother as a five-year-old girl – vulnerable, fragile – you understand, and you can forgive her very easily with compassion. Th[at] five-year-old girl is always alive in her, and in you. Breathing in, I see my mother as a five-year-old girl. Breathing out, I smile to [her].[i]

I also find the strength to forgive in Psalm 27, which we read daily during the month of Elul. It reminds me that no matter what happens in my life, G-d will not abandon me.

עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַֽל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֝עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי

You are my help.
Abandon me not, nor forsake me,
O God of my rescue.
Though my father and mother forsook me,
the Lord would gather me in.”[ii]

Thus, gaining understanding of the hurtful person’s suffering, extending compassion to him or her, while finding refuge in my faith, I learn that I can forgive.

[i] Hanh, Thich Nhat. (2003). “Mindfulness of Anger: Embracing the Child Within.” On Being. Public talk given at The Green Lake Conference Center in Wisconsin. Transcript posted 01/22/2015. Accessed 9/9/2020. 

[ii] Psalm 27. (2019). The Hebrew Bible, V. 3 The Writings, p. 79. Translated by Robert Alter. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2019.

(This is an edited version of a talk I gave as part of “Stories of Forgiveness: A Collaborative Selichot Program,” organized by four Southern California temples on Sept. 12, 2020.) 

#forgiveness #highholidays #selichot #thichnhathanh #psalm27

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