Repentance Means Having to Say You’re Sorry (with apologies to Eric Segal).
That adage made its way into my notes as I prepared for today’s post, but, unfortunately, I’m not sure if it’s original with me. If I stole it from you, I apologize. Be sure to wave your arms and get my attention; I’ll be happy to credit you.
Ironic to find two apologies in the first two paragraphs. And both came out somewhat flippantly. Flippant apologies must be contagious, for there have certainly been a run of them in the news of late.
Today, though, October 12, 2016, is Yom Kippur, the Jewish “Day of Atonement,” a day about which there is nothing flippant.
Most of us know that Yom Kippur is the highest of all the Jewish holidays.
But, unless you’re Jewish, I’ll bet you don’t know that Yom Kippur:
- calls for a 25-hour fast
- is often observed by wearing white as the symbol of purity
- begins with a prayer asking God to relieve promises made because, otherwise, historically, those were promises made in the early centuries of Christendom, when Jews were forced to convert. That’s how seriously Jews take their vows. Only God can relieve them of that obligation.
Prior to today’s post preparation, I knew this holiday mostly through its connection to “the Yom Kippur War” of 1973.
As a result, I set out to write (and learn) about Yom Kippur.
But, as so often happens when I write, I found myself veering into new territory. From those basics of the Yom Kippur holiday, I learned about atonement, which moved me to look into the role of repentance in the world’s major religions (I found it in all of them).
And, as I examined repentance and its many aliases — apology, remorse, regret, confession, contrition, penitence, guilt, grief, and personal responsibility — our current political headlines surrounded me.
It’s a stressful time in our country, an unsettling time with the future of our democracy unpredictable. Fortunately, rather than getting absorbed by the details of our current political malaise, I found myself dissecting the concept of an apology, the act of repentance. What makes one apology work, while another one doesn’t? What, exactly, is the power an apology holds? What does it take to truly repent?
I see repentance as the means to heal a fractured relationship.
Whether that relationship is with ourselves, our God, our partner, our neighbor, our community, or our country, I’m holding to the notion that the structure of the ensuing apology will be the same.
I chose the Identify, Own, and Honor three-step model, which I’d long used with clients working with their emotions. Let’s find out if that model will work with apologies too.
What is it you’re actually apologizing for? An apology must begin with an acknowledgment that something was done that caused injury. At this point, we want to make sure both sides are on the same page. What, exactly, did I do wrong? What is it I’m admitting to? What is the injury? Name it.
In the example from our current headlines, was the apology expected for the words spoken, the attitude toward women conveyed, or the philosophy of power exposed?
Whether it’s an emotional injury (you embarrassed me; you broke my heart), a financial injury (you broke my window; you embezzled from my company), a physical one, or some other type, the specific injury needs to be named and acknowledged. Agreeing upon it would be helpful. But it’s not enough.
Whose fault is it, really? I came across this quote from the Dalai Lama, which, as quotes from the Dalai Lama tend to do, spoke eloquently on just this point:
“When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn
both peace and joy.”
I did it. And I am sorry. I regret.
This is the moment when we accept the part we played in creating the injury, when we admit (to ourselves first), that we erred. Sometimes the regret is so great, we grieve the loss of who we thought we were. And for many, that is hard to do.
Sometimes it’s a simpler matter of accepting that we made a mistake. But even that acceptance takes courage. We become vulnerable when we admit our faults, our weaknesses. It can be scary to allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. But it is in that very vulnerability that we make the connection so needed to heal. It is in that very humility that we acknowledge our humanity.
How easy it can be to deflect that vulnerability, to blame someone else, to divert attention elsewhere, away from ourselves.
And, in our headlines example, we all know the deflection that was given. That one wasn’t even subtle.
An apology is not the time for excuses, but it is the time for explanation. And there’s an important difference. I believe a good apology requires an explanation that puts the injury into a broader context. It is only through understanding this broader picture that the injured party can begin to believe it will not happen again.
I didn’t know. I forgot. I was not paying attention. I was an insensitive brute. And I’m sorry. I was greedy; I was wrong.
What can you do to make it right? To heal the rift; right the wrong? This is the reparation part, the “evening up” stage of the apology. This is the time to show you have changed, the time to walk the talk. To carry out the answer to the question you must ask, “What can I do to make it right?”
We started with the premise that an apology, at its core, is about healing a fractured (injured) relationship. But some relationships aren’t going to mend. Sometimes what it will take to make amends is more than you are willing or able to do.
Can you have a genuine apology without reparation, without repair? Replacing the broken window or paying the medical deductible is simple enough. What about a broken heart, an injured pride, a broken promise? What about a difference of opinion, the uncovering of a contrasting value? How does one go about making reparations for an intangible injury? How much is one willing to change to please the other?
And, finally from our headlines example, do we know where the apology began? I read that it was expected, anticipated, necessary. Where did it begin though?
Besides trying to fit the structure of an apology into this Identify, Own, and Honor model, I found a few other points about apologies I’d love to follow.
- I haven’t said nearly enough about forgiveness; that’s worth a whole post and others have done it and done it well.
- An apology can go sour at any one of the three points; I’d love to talk more about that, someday.
- I’m proposing that the unsolicited apology is worth more than the one given on demand. That deserves further exploration.
Yes, there is still much to chew on, write about, discuss on the topic of repentance, atonement, apology. One thing for certain, however: It takes courage to truly repent, even privately. To fully acknowledge and accept that we are fallible, we make mistakes, we screw up. And then we apologize.
I am grateful that the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur reminded me.
How about you? What makes apologizing difficult? Or easy? Possible?