As I write this, Elul is rapidly waning and I imagine that I can almost hear the mournful and alerting cry of shofarim echoing across the Twin Cities, Minnesota, North America and the world. The Days of Awe invite us to stop, to think, to adjust our lives and to cross the breaches we’ve inserted between ourselves and others. There is so much to think about at this beginning of this sweet new year, and in just a few days’ time Yom Kippur. While there is so much to attend to during this holy time, I am especially drawn to the opportunity we have to repair our relationships.
Being an imperfect human being means that none of us is immune from hurting other people and, by corollary, it is inevitable that people will hurt us. One of the skills of a well-lived life is to be able to recognize and right the wrongs we have created through our actions.
This is a thread that runs through many spiritual and ethical belief systems. The 12-Step tradition that guides many people through recovery from a pattern of life-destroying behavior, emphasizes making an objective inventory of what we have done wrong in our lives and requires us to make amends to others we have harmed.
Judaism explicitly calls us to remediate the pain we are responsible for creating through our actions (or inactions). One of our traditions at Yom Kippur is to reach out to people we have harmed and to make amends.
In our very defensive culture, a sincere statement of apology can seem to be a hard thing to do. Perhaps it is a threat to our self-esteem. Maybe it makes us feel weak. Maybe we just don’t know how. In the spirit of this season of healthy repentance, I humbly offer these suggestions for making amends to another person:
1. Accept that you screwed up. Don’t just feel bad that someone else feels bad about your actions. Really look at what you did and the consequences that resulted. It may be helpful to talk to a friend whom you trust to give you honest, un-sugar-coated feedback.
2. Express sincere remorse for your actions. None of this “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt,” crap will do. Reach out to the person you wronged. Say to them something like this: “I am sorry that I _______. I know that I hurt you.” There’s a catch with this step: sometimes you may cause more harm to a person by making amends than by leaving them alone. Never express remorse just to make yourself feel better if it will hurt the other person further.
3. The other person may not be able to accept your sincere and heartfelt apology. You must accept this gracefully, and move on. This doesn’t take you off the hook for having wronged them in the first place. It is okay to apologize again at a later time. If they consistently don’t accept your apology, despite your best efforts, then there is nothing further you can do. However, you will know in your heart that you have done everything possible to make amends.
4. Where possible take another action to restore what was lost. It can be as simple as a sincere act of kindness to that person, or it may be something tangible such as repayment of an expense the other person incurred as the result of your regretted action. If the person you wronged is not prepared to receive your restitution, an act of kindness to a stranger or a contribution to a charity provides you the opportunity to put forth something positive to counteract your action.
5. Reflect on what you have learned so that you can take the opportunity to attempt to live a more loving and ethical life.
Once you have made amends to the one you have wronged and have an understanding of how you did what you did, it is time to forgive yourself. Repentance also calls us to treat ourselves with loving care so that we are free to give our best to others.
Editorial Note: A portion of this post appeared in a different form at my blog Project You. I am indebted to Rabbi Michael Adam Latz’s teaching as I prepared this essay. —CB
(Photo: andrew and hobbes)