The Art of the Good Apology

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

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Elul Sweat

I associate the last few days of Elul with sweat.

Sure it’s hot. Pretty much anywhere north of the equator, this is going to be one of the warmer months of the year. Even in the Bay Area, where it’s “always” moderate, we are usually fussing about about the heat towards the end of Elul.

My Elul sweat has more to do with the things left for me to do: the phone calls I have not yet made and the apologies I am yet to give. As long as I’m still dreading them, my teshuvah is incomplete.

The best apology is made out of concern for the other person. When I sweat, I know that the focus of my teshuvah is still on myself: my embarrassment at imperfection, my need to appear flawless, my fear of blame. Excuses keep flashing to mind: I was busy, I was upset, I was depressed, I was anxious, I was distracted, my feelings were hurt… those are all about me. They are not teshuvah.

The best apology is made of concern for the other person. The only way I know to that place is to imagine myself in their shoes, to cultivate compassion. How would I feel on the other side of my behavior?

Then I sweat some more because that isn’t fun, either. I must grab that energy and take it where it will do some good. I must seize it and make teshuvah.

I wish you a fruitful Elul.

An Apology to My Readers

I’m one of those people who thinks best when I’m talking or writing out my thoughts, “talking it out.” Every now and then, I do it in an inappropriate setting and I live to regret it.

I withdrew a post just now because I said too much in it, and obscured the meaning for which I was reaching. I posted it last night, instead of letting it “cook” for a day, my usual practice, and I think I have upset some readers. For that, I am very sorry. I will let such posts “cook” longer in future.

And now I think I’ve probably upset some others who are wondering what the heck Rabbi Adar put up on her blog. Don’t worry, you didn’t miss anything but the messy inside of my head!

When we sin, when we “miss the mark,” the only thing to do is make teshuvah: feel the regret, own the behavior, apologize, and do what we can to make sure it never happens again. I am sorry for putting up a poorly thought through post, and I will think longer and harder in future.

A Vidui for Martin Luther King Day

Image: Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL blows the shofar. Use by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to it are hers.

A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

 

For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

What is the Book of Life?

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote, “Our days are scrolls. Write on them what you wish to be remembered.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?

 

2nd Week of Elul

1st quarter moon
2nd week of Elul

We’re in the second week of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. In just a few weeks it will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Last week was a week for contemplating the snapshot of my life now. What is good? What is lacking? With whom am I on good terms? Do I owe an apology to anyone? What have I left undone? About what do I feel uneasy.

I’ve been stirring the pot. Things have come up, some of them difficult. If they were easy, I’d have dealt with them already.

This week is the week to begin contacting people: the neglected people, the estranged people, the people I may have wronged. Who has been avoiding me? Whom have I avoided? Those are the people I need to reach.

This is the week for reaching out.

Some will reach back, some will not. That is not my concern.

Some will want to talk, some won’t. That is not my concern.

Some will accept my apology, some won’t. That, too, is not my concern.

This is my week to reach out.

Guilt vs Shame

Rodin's Eve after the Fall.
Eve after the Fall, by Rodin

The soul-searching of Elul can be healthy and productive. It helps us to get back on track. It can provide the push we need to resolve unfinished business. It can allow us to start the new year with a clean slate and a clean conscience.

One way to get off track, though, is to get confused about the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is the fact or state of having committed an offense. The feeling of guilt is useful: it’s a feeling of responsibility for having done (or failed to do) the deed in question. It might include remorse at the behavior in question. Guilt says “I did something” or “I neglected to do something.” 

Guilt is redeemable. It is fixable. The way to cure guilt is to make teshuvah. I wrote a post a while back called The Jewish Cure for Guilt about how to deal with guilt.

There are a lot of jokes about “Jewish guilt” but those jokes are not really about guilt. They are about shame.

Shame says, “I am a bad person because X.” Shame wracks the soul and can twist a psyche into a pretzel. Shame is not useful, although people try to use it on each other all the time. Shame may or may not be connected to a particular deed; it’s misery connected to a person’s sense of him- or herself.

Shame is paralyzing. Shame denies the possibility of redemption or change.

Shame requires healing. Part of that healing may be to deal with guilt over things that we have actually done. (See article about the cure for guilt.) The rest of the healing requires a healing of shame about things that were not our doing: things that were done to us, things that were said to us, things that were out of our control. We human beings like to think we’re in control of everything, so some of the healing comes when we acknowledge that we don’t control as much of the world as we’d like.

This Elul, as you do the work of this month, pay attention to your feelings. If you notice that you are in extraordinary pain, or if the list of things to repent seems endless and overwhelming, consider seeking help: a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist, your rabbi. Elul is for making ourselves and the world better. Sometimes that happens by letting go of shame.