Teshuvah and True Connection

Few of us understand the immense power of teshuvah, but our tradition’s gift is genius. It can revive connections and heal shame, bringing us to mutual understanding and compassion.

“Maybe for you,” I can hear some people mumbling as they read the above sentence. The fact is, we don’t get a lot of guidance about how to make this happen. It is not only about recognizing that we made a mistake, apologizing, and maybe making restitution.

What really helps is when we can find the understanding that brings us to a deep compassion for both ourselves and the person who was hurt.

This is not something many of us naturally do. In fact, it seems likely that our socialization and our society try to control us by keeping us believing that any mistakes we make render us unworthy of love and, thus, (to our pre-verbal selves) of survival. Since none of us is perfect, a small part of us may constantly question whether we measure up, and try, sometimes desperately, to prove that we do.

Teshuvah, at its best, has the power to help us recognize our own worthiness. We affirm in our morning liturgy, “God, the soul you have implanted within me is pure.” As Polly Berrien Berends taught parents, the mess in your child’s diaper is not your child. You clean her off and the truth of that baby’s sweetness and purity is revealed. This is what teshuvah can do for us – reveal our innate purity – but it also leaves us wiser, perhaps more compassionate as well. God is said to treasure more highly the one who sins and does teshuvah than the one who never sinned in the first place.

The key is to understand the yetzer. If you have heard of yetzer ha-ra and yetzer ha-tov then you know that these represent the inclination to do good or ill. Perhaps, though, the yetzer begins simply as the inborn desire to live, neither good nor bad in itself. As a student of Marshall Rosenberg, z”l, the developer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), I recognized right away that what he called “Life Energy” or “Universal Human Needs” could be the same as the yetzer – an energy that prompts us to feel, do, and say whatever we feel, do, or say. This life energy impels us. Our choices as to how we answer these promptings – our strategies to meet our needs – are what may or may not cause harm.

When you reflect on those things you did this year that you regret, try to think of the life-energy that was prompting you. Were you wanting more autonomy to direct your own life? Were you wishing for closer connection or love? Did you need reassurance that you are worthy and valued? Were you bored and needing some excitement? Were you just really hungry and tired and, consciously or not, desperately wanting a break and a snack?

When you answer these questions and figure out what life-energy prompted your action, do you find yourself feeling a little more compassion toward yourself? It’s worth taking time to actually feel that self-compassion. It will help you to connect with yourself, which is part of this process of healing.

When you are ready to apologize, ask yourself those questions again, but this time regarding the other person. Were they hurt because they wanted your acceptance? Were they hurt because they wanted a sense of being worthy or being loved or respected? Were they frustrated because they wanted more autonomy to direct their own life?

You don’t know for sure what was hard for them, but asking the questions helps you have some tenderness for their pain. From there, a really effective apology can include asking the person one of those questions to let them know that you care about why what you did was hard for them. And you can also express your regret from the perspective of wanting to act in integrity with your own values and/or your care for the other person.

These questions are a part of what Nonviolent Communication can teach about healthy teshuvah. Learn more by checking out the resources in the sidebar below. For further information about teshuvah one very readable source is the book Repentance by St. Paul native Louis Newman. There you will learn the steps of teshuvah, and see how what you’ve learned about NVC fits right into them.

The Talmud tells us that teshuvah was created before the world was created. Perhaps this is because God knew how hard it would be to live with a pure soul in a world where we are destined to screw up over and over again. We have been given the means by which to clean up our messes. Although we will keep making them, by doing teshuvah we can always reconnect with the truth of our soul’s purity, and doing it with NVC can help us reconnect with the ones affected by our mistakes.

Pam Winthrop Lauer is a spiritual director and teacher of Connecting Communication/NVC in St. Paul. You can register for her 2-hour workshop, Practical Teshuvah – Clear Guidance for True Reconciliation, by going to ttsp.org/hineni/courses.