Forgiving Yourself

I am a critic. To some degree, we all are. We criticize our co-workers when they do a bad job. We get upset when our friends don’t come to our aid. We lament that our family doesn’t understand who we have become. It can be particularly hard to forgive someone else if they have done a terrible wrong against you. Relationships suffer, loneliness ensues, and it takes a lot of time to heal these wounds.

But even harder than forgiving someone else, we struggle to forgive ourselves.

Take my friend, Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Tanaka and I taught English together in a Japanese high school. This was my first job out of college – a teacher’s aide for English classrooms in Japan. I would help Japanese teachers promote the learning of natural English and in exchange, I would get to live in Japan for a few years. Thrust into this strange new culture, I wound my way through a world with a new language, new social rules, and new friends.

Even amid the newness, Mr. Tanaka was different. The other teachers were politely cheerful. Mr. Tanaka was gruff, almost mean. He yelled at a young female student once so loudly that she cried in the teacher’s room. He told me he hated English, and yet, he insisted that we study Time magazine articles together to increase his vocabulary. He seemed bored in the classroom, letting me run the show and reading in the back of the room. He became animated, however, when he took me out to lunch (on his dime) to teach me about Japanese culture.

I could not understand his contradictions, and to be honest, I really didn’t try. He was an old Japanese guy. I was a young American female. I labeled his odd behavior as uniquely “Japanese” and forgot about it. He was self-centered and chauvinistic, probably a result of having grown up in post-war Japan. It was all too easy to dismiss, so I did.

After two years of teaching, though, I needed to return home for postgraduate studies. Mr. Tanaka took me out to lunch one afternoon, again footing the bill. We ate at one of a hole-in-the-wall place and ordered the “special,” eggs and ketchup over rice.

Mr. Tanaka knew I had a fiancé and asked if I wanted kids. I told him that I did, and without thinking, I asked if he wanted them too. Then I remembered I was talking to an old Japanese guy who had no wife and immediately balked. What a stupid thing to ask on one of our last days together.

He grew very quiet. I told him not to answer. Instead, he pulled out his wallet and showed me a wrinkled, over-exposed photograph. A boy, not more than 6, squinted at the camera in front of a quaint little Japanese house.

This is my son, he said.

I must have looked shocked. He never mentioned a son or a wife. So he explained. He had been married for several years. They had been happy at first, but over time, their relationship suffered. Instead of facing his marital problems, he became immersed in his job and studying English. His wife, tired of the marriage, asked for divorce. In America, custody hearings would ensue, dividing the child’s time between father and mother. In Japan, the mother almost always gets full custody of the child. He hadn’t seen his son in 7 years. He tried to attend his middle school graduation, but his ex-wife berated him, telling him if his son wanted to see him, he would find his father as an adult.

I told him that was terrible. He must be so angry at his wife.

No, Mr. Tanaka said. She was right to leave him. He should have been more attentive. He should have sought marriage counseling. He listed a dozen ways he could have saved the marriage and failed.

He wasn’t mad at her. He was mad at himself.

I haven’t seen Mr. Tanaka in several years, but we still write each other. I still try to teach him new vocabulary and I ask him what movies he’s seen. He likes to ask about American politics and occasionally sends a Time article for me to read. He’s still trying to master English, as penance perhaps, for a marriage lost.

I wish I could tell him it wasn’t his fault. Remember that fiancé I had? I married him and divorced him too. I wrote Mr. Tanaka about the divorce, explaining the mistakes I made and how I worked hard at forgiving myself. How I drew courage from his story to get through my own marital troubles. He never responded to that letter, but I hope he read it. If I’m lucky, in a corner of his heart, he forgave himself, just a little.

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