11/25/2013 08:09 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Have We Forgotten How to Forgive?

In Philomena, Judi Dench plays a mother whose 1950s teenage pregnancy led her to an Irish convent where she gave birth and had to work for several years in return. As a toddler, her son was taken from her and given to American adoptive parents. Philomena's daughter convinces a recently sacked journalist, Martin Sixsmith, to help Philomena, now in her 60s, find her long-lost son. As the story unfolds, she is devastated by what she finds, including the fact that, despite repeated visits to the convent over the years, the nuns never told Philomena what they knew.

Near the end of the film, Philomena and Martin encounter the nun who was responsible for both giving her son away and hiding the facts of his life. She has every right to be furious, especially when the nun still defends herself, castigating Philomena once again for her "carnal lust." Philomena, a devout Catholic despite it all, responds with a simple yet powerful "I forgive you." Martin, a religious skeptic at best, who has far less justification for being angry, tells the nun that "She may forgive you, but I do not."

On one hand, the story is a parable of the power of faith to transcend bitterness. From another perspective, it raises important questions about whether we have forgotten how to forgive.

In our contemporary lives, culture, and politics, we seem too often driven by anger. Powered by antennae that see the faults of others but not the self-certainty that hides our own, we demand accountability and revenge. In our personal lives, we end relationships and marriages when partners fail us. We may call these "no-fault" conclusions, but in our hearts we are convinced that the fault lies outside us. At work, we hold our bosses and co-workers to task for mistakes and the stress in our lives. We expect them to be perfect but fail to see our own imperfections. In our politics, we revel in condemning opponents - for their beliefs and actions, for simply refusing to see the world our way. We treat politics as a zero-sum game. We can't seem to realize that our political gain is often society's loss. Through all this, we wonder why life has let us down so much.

Brandishing the burnished sword of criticism, we have found innumerable ways to blame others. We have found too few ways to forgive them. When she hears Martin's outburst at the nun, Philomena tells him: "It must be so exhausting to be you." In some respects, we are as well a society exhausted by our failure to forgive.

Refusing forgiveness does more than exhaust us. Retained anger prevents us from moving forward. We become speed bumps in our own lives. Philomena, as the movie ends, is able to laugh again. She will never forget the injustice, but she will not let it destroy the rest of her life. Martin struggles to learn from this, beginning with a newfound admiration for this humble woman. We suspect as well that the story he will write about her will recognize the power of forgiveness as it also contributes to the journalists' promise of "never again" that must attend any miscarriage of justice.

Forgiveness has a flip side too. It is called apology. To expect forgiveness when we refuse both to apologize to those harmed and make restitution for our behavior is to expect a world of Philomenas. It expects too much. In the same way that we have forgotten to forgive, we have come to associate apology with weakness. In marriage, the words "I was wrong" connected to a sincere effort to repair the damage done to the relationship is the germination seed of forgiveness. At work, acknowledging our errors and offering to help the colleagues we have let down goes a long way toward making mistakes, an inevitable part of being human, opportunities for learning and organizational healing. In politics, where public apologies seem almost inconceivable, we need to learn to publicly acknowledge that we, too, can be wrong and that if all we seek is vindication, all we will get is viciousness.

Yet, to say the words "I forgive you" and "I am sorry" is easy. To mean those words - to have undertaken the work required to turn bitterness to acceptance and regret to redemption - is hard. Perhaps it took Philomena many of those fifty years to let forgiveness into her heart. For Martin, the acerbic journalist whose profession trained him to find fault, it was in some ways harder. But if we want to heal, if we want progress in our lives and in our land, if we want to be the best selves that we wanted to be before life taught us differently, then we need to learn again how to apologize to others - and to forgive them.