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Tracking down the author of the popular quote, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past”

Banana Writing for Meditation? (credit: Core Jolts)

Banana Writing for Meditation? (credit: Core Jolts)

Wisdom. Shimon ben Zoma taught that the wise learn from everyone. My friend, Pesach, wrote a book of his accumulated life wisdom, Sustainable Bliss, and devoted three pages to pithy quotes he had picked up in the course of his readings and travels. While editing and co-publishing his book, I’d do my best to attribute each quote correctly. Recently, before going into our second printing he asked me to add one more:

“Part of forgiveness is the letting go of hope for a better yesterday.”

Pesach wasn’t sure who said it when I asked. No worries, I thought. You can keyword search these things in Google. Trouble is there were way too many hits. This was one popular quote and it had found its way into memes, motivational posters, Oprah Winfrey. You get the idea. The way to research such things nowadays, is to visit another part of Google’s search engine: Google Books and its date range search tool. I began tracing where in other books the quote was published, and how it morphed, and from whence it originated. Driving backwards from the present, I found a couple of minor variations of the quote: “Forgiveness means letting go of the hope for a better past” and “Forgiveness means giving up hope for a better past.” I pressed on. There it was.

In 2001, the last words of Robert Lee Massie, executed in California were:

“Forgiveness. Giving up all hope for a better past.”

Sad. Poignant and true. But had a prison psychologist or chaplain mentioned this to him? Had Massie read this somewhere in his death row prison library? In 1995, Corinne Edwards wrote the following in Love Waits on Welcome: …And Other Miracles (Steven J. Nash Pub.):

“Jerry Jampolsky, author of Love Is Letting Go Of Fear, says that ‘Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.'”

Gerald G. Jampolsky‘s actual quote from Love is Letting Go of Fear (Bantam, 1979) is:

“Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, and is therefore the means for correcting our misperceptions.”

Corrine Edward’s paraphrase “giving up all hope for a better past” offers quite a potent and pithy innovation over Jampolsky’s “letting go of the past.” Neither giving up nor letting go is a passive action, but Edward’s formulation breathes an insight into the inherent difficulty of friendly advice to “just let go” — advice that underestimates the depth of this challenge. What is being let go, exactly? What is one giving up? All hope… for a better past. That’s tremendously difficult. The maxim now conveys the hardship for so many people whose internal narrative of pain, struggle, and regret, defines so much of their sense of self-identity, self-purpose, and self-explanation.

The implicit power of redefining forgiveness here is in its re-centering of any practice of forgiveness on the forgiver, rather than the one forgiven. This is an essential, radical redefinition of what it means to forgive, and to be forgiven. The onus is no longer on the transgressor to redeem themselves through a transformative act or journey of repentance — a performance that shackles the one harmed to their abuser. The wisdom here recognizes that the psychic health of individuals requires them to give up on any hope that a past figure will come forward to beg forgiveness or make amends. (The maxim also dangerously provides an out for the conflicted abuser who seeks to evade their sense of guilt by moving beyond their feeling to take responsibility to make amends through acts of forgiveness.) For Jampolsky, correcting one’s own misperceptions is the means by which an individual “lets go of the past.” But what if our perception is entirely correct and some past behavior still remains unresolved? Here then is the power of Edward’s prescriptive formulation: “forgiveness” becomes another term for moving on regardless of life’s unresolved complications.

The unfortunate nature of the maxim is that it is presented as a truism, rather than as wisdom to be employed in restricted situational contexts. In some circumstances, healing can and does occur in relationships where individuals ask forgiveness of each other. In other circumstances, forgiveness in an old broken relationship isn’t desired, and simply re-enforces and re-inscribes the power by which one party continues engaging with another without consent. (See Josh Rosenberg’s offering at the Open Siddur Project, “When not to seek forgiveness.”) This maxim, I think, might work well as a prompt for individuals in the latter category.

Before 1979, I couldn’t find any more leads. Nowadays, the quote is often (mis)attributed to the American Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield (as well as to Lily Tomlin, Oprah Winfrey, Lama Surya Das, and others). Since Kornfield didn’t begin publishing until the 1980s, I’m almost certain it originated with Jampolsky. The current set of variations appearing on mugs, posters, and bananas all appear to derive from Corinne Edwards’ phrasing. So, to the rest of the Internet, I would attribute the quote to “Corinne Edwards after Gerald Jampolsky.”

I wonder why exactly, sometime between 1995 and 2001, the quote lost its attribution. Was the lack of attribution an all-too-typical oversight or was it intentional? The value of a quote can tempt the plagiarist. To correctly attribute to a tainted name can blight an otherwise excellent quote. I can certainly imagine this in the case of some kernel of wisdom shared by a guru whose past or whose own associations are held by some (or all) in disrepute. And then there’s the more simple case of willful ignorance and outright theft in a highly competitive world of spiritual/business consulting and life coaching. Why attribute when you can simply take credit?

Perhaps the explanation is more innocent. Any positive attribution was lost when it was uttered by the convicted murderer Robert Lee Massie as his poignant last words. “There’s a wonderful definition of forgiveness: that to forgive is to give up all hope for a better past,” explains Dr. Fred Luskin, a psychologist and former director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, in an interview published on PBS.org in 2002 for a documentary on capital punishment. I imagine it was around then that the quote really took flight, unattributed, making its way from trauma professionals to life coaches to American Buddhists to inspirational posters and mugs sold on Zazzle — the inspirational quote that launched a thousand memes (see again, banana).

I wanted to know more about the school of thought of Edwards and Jampolsky, so I dug a little deaper and found myself in the realm of 1960s and 70s ©New Age™ religious and psychological works. Jampolsky’s work was developed for a New Age brand called Attitudinal Healing International, a rebranding (I think) of something like a curriculum in magical thinking called A Course in Miracles. For background on A Course in Miracles, see this wikipedia article.

A Course in Miracles (also referred to as ACIM or the Course) is a book written and edited by Helen Schucman, with portions transcribed and edited by William Thetford, containing a self-study curriculum to bring about what it calls a “spiritual transformation”. The book consists of three sections entitled “Text”, “Workbook” and “Manual for Teachers”. Written from 1965 to 1972, some distribution occurred via photocopies before a hardcover edition was published in 1976 by the Foundation for Inner Peace.[1] The copyright and trademarks, which had been held by two foundations, were revoked in 2004[1] after lengthy litigation because the earliest versions had been circulated without a copyright notice.[2][3] Schucman believed that an “inner voice”, which she identified as Jesus, guided her writing.[4][5] Throughout the 1980s annual sales of the book steadily increased each year; however the largest growth in sales occurred in 1992 after Marianne Williamson discussed the book on The Oprah Winfrey Show,[1] with more than two million volumes sold.[1] The book has been called everything from “New Age psychobabble”,[6] “a Satanic seduction”,[1] to “The New Age Bible”.[7]

And from the Course in Miracles archives,

In the summer of 1965 psychologists Drs. William Thetford and Helen Schucman, tenured members of the teaching staff at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, began to scribe A Course in Miracles….Dr. Thetford [began his career] with his early interest in psychology and his acquisition of a Ph.D. in that field from the University of Chicago. [Afterward, he worked] as a senior psychologist with the Central Intelligence Agency from 1950 to 1953 and…with Dr. John Gittinger at CIA to develop the Personality Assessment System (PAS). Thetford so respected the intellectual and behavioral forecasting potential of the PAS that, from 1953 to 1965, he received Columbia University grants to help refine the PAS and use it to explore the broad field of personality development. Despite his intellectual fascination with the PAS, by 1965 Dr. Thetford was acutely aware of inherent limitations of psychology to explain human behavior. In that awareness Bill one day exclaimed to Helen, “There must be a better way.” When the scribing of A Course in Miracles began in that year, he and Helen Schucman shifted their interest and energies from the analysis of ego development (PAS) to search for the nature of this other way.

Cold-war CIA funded psychological research, New Age religion, and interminable copyright litigation: this story, as far as I had taken it, had all the makings of a mad Discordian jaunt. I thought it might be wise to stop for now and return to learn more another day.

I really like the quote regardless of its strange lineage. I like it even better now, now that it’s attributed. And that’s why I’ve shared all of this. Regardless of whom one learns from, it’s crucial to attribute a teaching in the name of the one who taught it. In the world of ideas, the credit of attribution is the only promise of prestige. This is the 48th and final virtue of the excellent student as explained by Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi in the Pirkei Avot (Maxims of the Sages 6:6, circa 4th century). To fail to attribute is not only a theft of honor; in a world of information, it is a weakening of the bonds establishing the network comprising the emergent noosphere. May we all benefit from each other’s insight, honor each other with our wisdom, and preserve the world from the suffering brought about by callous neglect, apathy, and proud ignorance. Take that and write it on a banana.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find my work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support me, please consider donating via my Patreon account.

8 comments to Tracking down the author of the popular quote, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past”

  • Bj

    Most interesting, having been a student of both the courses for many years.

  • Anonymous

    I enjoyed reading this article. Very impressive work by a clever man.

  • Kimberley

    What a fascinating rabbit hole this was. It began with me Googling the Lily Tomlin-attributed quote, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” It just didn’t strike as something originating from her and I wanted to do some checking.

  • I’m so glad you discovered my research.

  • Chipman Hunter

    I had to pull over to the side of the road and write this down when I first heard it in a podcast on CBC radio. It was unattributed and instead of Forgiveness the podcaster used Serenity. I was struck by the simplicity and profoundness of the statement (using Serenity) and thought of one person in particular I wanted to share it with. They were not as impressed as I, by the way. I searched the author as have you all and found this page. Thank-you for this research. The phrase will be passed on attributed to Gerald Jampolsky and Corinne Edwards.

  • You’re so welcome! I’m glad that you pulled over to take the note too which is commendable and smart.

  • Chipman – I like how you think – I heard the serenity version on the CBC this afternoon – borrowed a pen at a supplier’s shipping receiving desk, and a brown paper bag to write it on. I have someone in mind to share it with too. I hope it is well received. Thanks for your diligence Aharon!

  • Thanks to both of your comments, I reread my essay and added the following paragraph which seemed to me to be missing.

    Corrine Edward’s paraphrase “giving up all hope for a better past” offers quite a potent and pithy innovation over Jampolsky’s “letting go of the past.” Neither giving up nor letting go is a passive action, but Edward’s formulation breathes an insight into the inherent difficulty of friendly advice to “just let go” — advice that underestimates the depth of this challenge. What is being let go, exactly? What is one giving up? All hope… for a better past. That’s tremendously difficult. The maxim now conveys the hardship for so many people whose internal narrative of pain, struggle, and regret, defines so much of their sense of self-identity, self-purpose, and self-explanation.

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