Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: Failing at Forgiveness

One of the great things about attending service at a Unitarian Universalist fellowship is how the services draw on so many religious traditions. Today was the Days of Awe service celebrating the ten days including and between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The focus was on remembering the year past, particularly those we have lost to death, forgiving ourselves and those around us for actions which may have brought pain, and mindfully applying ourselves to our intentions for this next year.

During the homily, our minister spoke about forgiveness.

“The line between forgiving and forgetting has always been a difficulty for me,” the minister said. I share this difficulty.

How is it possible to remember the wrongs done to me (or the wrongs I have committed) and still forgive?

Forgetting I’m good at. As long as I don’t think about the way I treated my best friend in middle school or the rather poor choices I made in college, I can feel like I’ve forgiven myself for them. But then something will come up and remind me of a stupid thing I’ve done and I’ll realize I’ve not forgiven myself after all.

Last night, my husband and I were watching The Office. At the end of the episode, Dwight and Michael sat in a graveyard butchering the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and I was reminded of a sleepover I had in high school with the girl who would become valedictorian of our high school class. This young woman was someone I admired and always felt somewhat inferior to (truth be told, I still feel inferior to her). She was first-chair clarinet, took AP everything and excelled, scored a 1600 on the SAT (the old one, not the new easier one they started giving in the mid-90’s), never said stupid things, and was amazing in Model UN. In addition, she dressed well and was always kind to everyone. I could not believe she was my friend, much less that she was sleeping over at my house.

We were singing along to my mom’s 45’s and having a great time. “American Pie” came up and at the part where he says, “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck, with a pink carnation and a pickup truck,” I sang, very loudly, “I was a lonely teenage drunkin’ f***…” My friend just looked at me quizzically. I could tell she was revising her opinion of me.

Now this was not the first time I’d mis-sung lyrics to a popular song, nor was it the last. It’s something of a habit of mine to hear and then sing back loudly the wrong lyrics to songs. But with this particular friend to whom I already felt inferior, my idiocy was mortifying.

Even now, when I think of this, I cringe. I fear that this is why she’s not responded to my suggestion that we get together for dinner now that we live near each other again (even though there are plenty of other very logical non–me-related reasons for her not responding).

The only way I have any peace around it is to block it out. I’m mostly okay with that, but that’s not forgiveness.

What would it feel like to be able to recall that gaffe and not feel all of the mortification that accompanied the event in the moment?

I recognize that this is a fairly silly example (“That’s not a painful memory,” my husband said, “that’s just a funny story.”), but if I can’t even forgive myself for something silly like this, how can I have any hope of forgiving myself or anyone else for more egregious errors?

If we don’t forget, aren’t we always on guard for the next hurt? If we’re always on guard, can that be consistent with forgiveness? And if we’re not on guard, how can we protect ourselves from being hurt (or hurting ourselves) in the future? Does forgiving necessarily mean accepting the possibility of future pain?

Is it possible to forgive without forgetting?

And for those curious about the ongoing evolution of my wardrobe, this is what I wore today:

I already had the skirt, the cardigan, and the stockings. All the rest is new. Thanks to my husband for taking my picture this morning. The mirror thing just isn’t working very well. (And the pile of stuff by my feet is a pair of jeans and a mei tai.)

7 Replies to “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie: Failing at Forgiveness”

  1. Well, you know forgiveness is huge for my personal work right now. I am getting better at forgiveness for others. I get hung up on forgiving myself and on letting go of the ongoing fallout from past injuries. For example, I’m having trouble forgiving a former friend for her cruelty because of the drama it is causing between mutual friends. The original cruelty seems to be an alive thing that won’t let go. And I haven’t forgiven myself for allowing the cruelty to happen because I was in such shock, so I didn’t protect myself or my family well at the time.

    As for other things, I work very hard to really see the person (or myself) as fully human and find compassion. I accept the feelings of anger or pain instead of denying them. In that quiet after, little seeds of love can appear, even if it’s only for a breath, it’s something.


    1. I’ve definitely found that the “you did this to me” part is less difficult to forgive than the “I let this happen” part. But none of it is easy.

      I really like this: “I accept the feelings of anger or pain instead of denying them. In that quiet after, little seeds of love can appear, even if it’s only for a breath, it’s something.”

      The answer’s always the same, isn’t it? Why does it take so long to learn it? (And even longer to internalize it and do it, at least for me.)


  2. I have the same problem with forgiving and forgetting. If you figure out the answer, please share it because I need to know too!

    Oh, and it took me watching them sing “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League on Glee last year to realize that the line is “it’s much too late to find” not “switch your legs with mine”. Don’t ask me what I thought it meant, that’s what my 10-year-old self heard, so that’s what I thought it was for almost 20 years!


    1. I think Zoie might have answered it in her comment. I fear I’m looking for an easier way to peace, though. 😉

      And apparently “I miss you like the deserts miss the rain,” not “I miss you like the desert mystery.”

      I bought my husband a book a few years ago called ‘Scuse me While I Kiss This Guy full of mis-heard lyrics of popular songs. It was funny, but we ended up giving it away. It wasn’t the kind of book that was funny on multiple readings.


      1. Compassion for myself is something I struggle with. I guess I was looking for an easier way to peace too. 🙂

        At least that book shows us we are both not the only ones!


  3. Ugh, believe me, you are not alone. I do this all the time, suddenly, I will have a flash back of something stupid I did back in high school, and the shame and weirdness will feel so fresh. I have a book on my wishlist called, “I Thought It was Just Me” by Brene Brown which I think is supposed to deal with this issue. It’s pretty bad when you are thinking back 15 years…um, 20 years… and you still say to yourself, “Oh, MAN! What an IDIOT!” when you think about some of the stupid situations and things you’ve said. And it’s funny because I have asked one of my high school friends about a thing that was particularly painful to think about, and she looked at me puzzled and said, “I don’t remember that at all…” So maybe your friend doesn’t either. Or maybe she does and it did make a difference, but then she isn’t worthy of your company anyway ;).

    For the record, if you had done that at one of my sleepovers, I’d still be singing it that way to this day. We do that all the time. In fact the same friend I mentioned above and I went to Washington DC last fall for the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally and the whole way down we were bastardizing pop songs old and new (especially a certain Manfred Mann song which seemed to be constantly on the radio on some station)!


    1. It’s a comforting thought that perhaps my friend is, even now, singing my ridiculous lyrics to “American Pie” (if she remembers the incident at all. Considering the fact that I can remember hardly any of my high school classmates, I think it’s totally possible she doesn’t remember this.) Another friend from high school came over for dinner a couple of weeks ago, and it was really nice to go over the old memories and realize just how small a part they really played in our lives.


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