Forgiveness Is Giving Up All Hope of a Better Past

Anne Lamott? Don Felt? John A. MacDougall? Gerald G. Jampolsky? Gina Berriault? Dorothy Bullitt? Lily Tomlin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is not possible to change the past. Yet, enduring grievances are often emotionally rooted in an irrational hope that somehow past actions can be altered, and a disheartening event can be excised. Here is a popular adage based on this insight:

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.

The author Anne Lamott has received credit for this saying. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Anne Lamott did include an instance in her 1999 book “Traveling Mercies”; hence, she helped to popularize the saying; however, she disclaimed credit, and the remark was already in circulation.

The earliest match located by QI occurred in a speech reported in “The Los Angeles Times” in 1991. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

As the Rev. Don Felt, pastor of the Iao Congregational Church, Maui, explained to those attending an interfaith memorial service on Nagasaki Day, Aug. 9, this year, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”

QI does not know whether Don Felt coined this saying. The expression has been credited to others, and it also has been associated with twelve-step programs. This article presents a snapshot of current research.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1993 a variant concerning self-forgiveness appeared in “Spirituality in Recovery: A 12 Step Approach” by John A. Ishee and Paul Barton Doyle: 2

Forgiving yourself means giving up hope for a better past.
— John A. MacDougall

In 1995 the psychiatrist and bestselling author Gerald G. Jampolsky was given credit by Corinne Edwards in the book “Love Waits on Welcome”: 3

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

Jampolsky does discuss forgiveness extensively in his many books, but he did not coin the saying. The book mentioned in the excerpt above does not contain the saying.

In 1996 Gerald G. Jampolsky co-authored a book with Lee L. Jampolsky titled “Listen To Me: A Book for Women and Men About Father-Son Relationships”. The following version of the adage was included, but the attribution was anonymous. Thus, Jampolsky disclaimed credit: 4

Forgiveness means giving up all thoughts for a better past.
Anonymous

An instance occurred in the short story “Soul and Money” by Gina Berriault which appeared in the 1996 collection titled “Women in Their Beds”. QI does not know the original publication date of the story: 5

“If you’re having trouble sleeping,” his brother said, rising up from his recliner, “I’ll tell you how to fall asleep. What you do is forgive yourself. Francie tells her patients this thing she thought up. She tells them, Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past. It stumps them for a minute and then they laugh and then they fall asleep.”

The 1996 book “Filling the Void: Six Steps from Loss to Fulfillment” by Dorothy Bullitt included the saying, but the author disclaimed credit: 6

Because as the saying goes, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”

In 1997 the ABC television network published a memoir of the fictional character Erica Kane of the soap opera “All My Children” which included this entertaining passage: 7

A favorite slogan at the Betty Ford Center is “Forgiveness is giving up on the idea that the past could have had different results.” It’s so true! Once you stop blaming others for messing up your life, you can forgive them, and get on with the important business of Having It ALL!

Also in 1997 a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup alt.recovery.aa contained a variant expression: 8

One of the things that AA has given me was an ability to “abandon all hope for a better past.” I was finally able to start seeing things as they were instead of what I had wanted them to be.

In 1999 Anne Lamott published a chapter titled “Mom” within the collection of essays “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith”. Lamott noted that she did not know who was responsible for the saying: 9

Who was it who said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past?

Also in 1999 “Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All” by Gerald G. Jampolsky included an instance without attribution: 10

Forgiveness is letting go of all hopes for a better past.

A self-help book with a 2007 copyright titled “Live Your Dreams: Let Reality Catch Up” by Roger Ellerton ascribed the statement to actress and comedian Lily Tomlin: 11

Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. – Lily Tomlin

In conclusion, QI provisionally credits Don Felt with crafting this saying based on the 1991 citation. However, it was possible that Felt employed a pre-existing saying. Gerald G. Jampolsky, Anne Lamott, and Dorothy Bullitt have used the saying without claiming credit.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer, Mark Nazimova, and Joe McCarthy whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. McCarthy pointed to the instance in “Traveling Mercies”.)

Notes:

  1. 1991 December 2, The Los Angeles Times, Perspectives on Pearl Harbor: Apologies Across the Pacific by Brien Hallett, Quote Page B11, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1993, Spirituality in Recovery: A 12 Step Approach by John A. Ishee and Paul Barton Doyle, Chapter 4: From Grandiosity to Humility, Quote Page 44, New Directions, Brentwood, Tennessee. (Verified visually; thanks to the Southwest Baptist University of Bolivar, Missouri)
  3. 1995, Love Waits on Welcome …And Other Miracles by Corinne Edwards, Quote Page 85, Steven J. Nash Publishing, Highland Park, Illinois. (Verified visually; thanks to Broward County Library, Northwest Regional Library, Florida)
  4. 1996 Copyright, Listen To Me: A Book for Women and Men About Father-Son Relationships by Gerald G. Jampolsky and Lee L. Jampolsky, Quote Page 193, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, California. (Verified visually; thanks to Valencia College, Osceola Campus Library)
  5. 1997 (1996 Copyright), Women in Their Beds: New and Selected Stories by Gina Berriault, Short Story: Soul and Money, Start Page 42, Quote Page 47 and 48, Counterpoint, Washington, D.C., Distributed by Publishers Group West. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1996, Filling the Void: Six Steps from Loss to Fulfillment by Dorothy Bullitt, Chapter 4: Looking Inward, Quote Page 63, Rawson Associates: Scribner: Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1997, Having It All by Erica Kane (ABC Daytime Press) (Erica Kane is a fictional character in the U.S. soap opera “All My Children” of the ABC television network), Quote Page 101, Hyperion, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1997 December 14, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.recovery.aa, From: “MartyB” @ma.ultranet.com, Subject: Re: “Recovered” AA members. (Google Groups Search; Accessed June 14, 2018) link
  9. 1999, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, Large Print Edition, Essay: Mom, Start Page 173, Quote Page 280, Thorndike Press, Thorndike, Maine. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1999, Forgiveness: The Greatest Healer of All by Gerald G. Jampolsky M.D., Chapter 2: What Is Forgiveness? Quote Page 21, Beyond Words Publishing, Hillsboro, Oregon. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2010 (2007 Copyright), Live Your Dreams: Let Reality Catch Up: 5 Step Action Plan by Roger Ellerton, Quote Page 27, Published by Renewal Technologies. (Google Books Preview)