The 'Oprahfication' of forgiveness

By  Maura Hanrahan, Catholic Register Special
  • February 12, 2010
{mosimage}Forgiveness: One Step at a Time by Joseph F. Sica (Novalis, softcover, 142 pages, $15.95).

Alas, by the end of chapter one, I was trying hard not to be cynical about this book. This goes beyond my own ongoing struggles with forgiveness. I had read Sr. Helen Prejean’s endorsement on the back cover, in which she says this book will change lives. But the book starts with a clichéd story about a woman named Betsy whose husband has left her for another woman. Betsy, naturally enough, wants revenge and plenty of it: “I want to get even!” she screams at the author, a priest and her spiritual mentor. “I want him to hurt like I hurt!” The scenario and the tired dialogue in particular sounded made up.

Nor was I impressed with Sica’s use of dance as a metaphor for forgiveness: “ . . .hurts are inevitable in life’s every-changing tempo,” he writes. I am tired of the Oprahfication, if you like, of North American culture and the simplification of knowledge and wisdom.

Sica’s introduction of “Ten Simple Steps” (to forgiveness) almost sealed it for me. These are: Ruined, Retreat, Revenge, Rehearse, Rethink, Respond, Reminder, Repair, Reward and Release. There is a chapter devoted to each step. Then there are the  four Gs of unforgiveness: Gotcha People, the Gnawing Pain, the Get-Even Plans and the God-Awful Plans. Isn’t this dumbing down (while at the same time making things more complicated than they might be)? What is wrong with the wisdom of the ages in, say, the Bible? Tolstoy? Julian of Norwich?

{sa 1585957623}I know the blood, sweat and tears that go into the writing of a book. So I forged ahead, looking for useful content. And it is there, even in the dubious first chapter where Sica asserts, helpfully, that forgiveness is not about approving damaging behaviour. In the next chapter, there is a brief but interesting discussion of how our culture encourages revenge.

Revenge is indeed for “the strong, the vital, the honourable, the American,” says Sica, while forgiveness is for “wimps.” This is certainly the message from Hollywood and the White House and, closer to home, Rick Hillier and Ottawa, which is, for instance, letting a former child soldier rot in American military jails. Real strength, of course, both contributes to and comes in forgiveness. 

With references to films like Rain Man and television shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Sica is steeped in popular culture. He has, though, an ability to identify the usefulness of what he sees and experiences. A case in point: He says the 2002 film Changing Lanes makes us ask such important questions as, “What’s the right thing to do when someone else hurts us?” And, “Is an apology enough?” Clearly, Sica can analyse. I would have liked to see less gimmickry and more of his stripped-down analysis.

The author strikes me as a truly decent man who has been told many stories of hurt. He wants to help heal these people and us, his readers, too. He feels this desire almost urgently: “If you’re living with a broken and disconnected relationship, don’t wait until tomorrow to take care of it, to patch the roof or ‘spackle’ the ceiling. Make an effort to take care of it today. Don’t leave the apologies unsaid and the forgiveness withheld.”

True and encouraging, to be sure. 

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the author really understands that there are grades of injury. Rape, divorce, gossip and adultery all appear on a list that implies there are few differences in degree between them. 

If you are struggling with forgiveness (aren’t we all?) and you like this style of writing, as many do, this could be a helpful book. If this writing style bothers you, as it does me (sorry, Fr. Sica), something like David Adams Richard’s God Is is a much better bet.

(Author Hanrahan’s most recent book is Spirit and Dust: Meditations for Women with Depression.)

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