How to Forgive and Forget

Bury the hatchet. Let bygones be bygones. Kiss and make up. We have so many ways of describing forgiveness—but so few strategies for actually achieving it. The key to letting go for  good is understanding the psychology and the science behind your feelings. The grudge stops here.

Photo by Craig Cutler

The spring of my freshman year in high school, the mother of one of my friends started a campaign. The gist of her message was that I was cruel and conniving and that other parents should keep their kids away from me. She was persuasive. She provided examples of crimes I had allegedly committed. She read a list of them over the telephone to my friends’ parents and to an untold number of acquaintances. What set her off is still a mystery. Our families had logged considerable time in each other’s minivans. Her daughter and I played soccer together, and I had spent more hours on the road with her than with my own siblings.

When the campaign started, I was too stunned and hurt to ask my friend if she agreed with what her mother was saying about me. She didn’t hint otherwise. And just like that, we never really spoke again. It sounds strange, but I still felt close to her on the soccer field, where she knew what my next move would be better than anyone, and I hers. After our games, her mother handed out Tootsie Pops as usual—to every girl except me. To be fair, I wouldn’t have taken one from her even if she had offered.

The campaign, as far as I know, lasted until I left home for college. I tried to ignore the woman, but the truth is, she got to me. I knew that what she was doing was wrong—her charges were inaccurate at best—but I suspected that many people believed her. I wondered how I could have inspired such dislike in another human being, let alone an adult whom I had trusted, if I hadn’t done something truly terrible, if I wasn’t at least a little bit bad inside. In the years since, I’ve tried to gain perspective: She didn’t kill a person I loved or rob me of my life savings. And yet, 15 years later—15!—thinking about her still makes my heartbeat quicken and my stomach knot. In all my relationships, I remain alert to the possibility of ambush, of love and friendship dissolving without warning.

Clearly this is not a healthy way to live. I’ve devoted precious brain space to rehashing this episode in lieu of worthier pursuits: memorizing Spanish verbs, tracking the shelf life of vegetables, keeping up to date with the “Stuff on My Cat” Tumblr. Recently I’ve begun to wonder: If I could forgive my former friend’s mother, would I be able to forget about her? And if so, why do I still not want to?