The expression “to forgive and forget” is faulty on two accounts. It is really hard to forgive. It is near impossible to forget. If we set “forgive and forget” as the moral standard, we will fail ourselves and likely fail others in the difficult job we have of atonement. Yom Kippur, from the days of the Bible onward, is not a time to think about repentance. It is a time to achieve atonement. If that is the case, since forgiveness is so very hard, how can we get there, liberating ourselves and others from the tyranny of wrongdoing and offense?
Some years ago, The Wall Street Journal published findings from a University of Waterloo study on forgiveness that claimed that for forgiveness to be believable and accepted, your sorry needs eight dimensions. Leave one out, and the process is less comprehensive and effective. What are these steps, you wonder? Let’s waste no time. I know you want to memorize the steps right away because the holiday is around the corner.
· Acceptance of responsibility
· Admission of wrongdoing
· Acknowledgment of harm
· Promise to behave better
· Request for forgiveness
· Offer of repair
What we see through these steps is that sorry alone is not enough. Without regret or confession, the person you apologize to lacks the trust to believe that the future will be different. You may be sorry for an act, but the conditions of wrongdoing have not changed; you will be stuck in the cycle - a repeat offender with little future for the relationship.
The study also makes us aware of the need for a way forward, some form of repair that is accompanied by an explanation. In order to forgive, people want to know why we did wrong in the first place. Explanations are important, if for no other reason than in articulating our motives we have to reckon with our own intransigence.
In preparation for the High Holidays – and you don’t have to be Jewish to reflect on forgiveness at this season of the year – think of one person who needs a sorry from you. On a piece of paper, trace the eight dimensions of forgiveness in the specifics of a single apology and travel through the emotions you feel about yourself and the person. Ask yourself if your apology will further alienate the person or will create greater intimacy. This outcome is often missing from the apology exchange. How do I want to feel about this person, and how do I want this person to feel about me after forgiveness has been requested? If you are not there yet, consider what it will take to get there.
Now, if you’re ready, let’s jump back a few hundred years – well, almost a millennia. Rabbi Jonah, a thirteenth-century scholar in Gerona, Spain did not read the University of Waterloo study. But he did write a master-work on atonement called The Gates of Repentance. In it, he outlined 20 steps in the forgiveness process. In many ways, this challenging chronology of approaching personal wrongdoing goes beyond the transactional way many approach forgiveness to the transformative nature of true repentance. We are changed as human beings through the act of forgiveness.
Have a look at his list and pay attention to the places where modern research and ancient thinking converge and where they don’t. What I discovered in comparing the two is that Rabbi Jonah includes larger scale elements in his process that make wrongdoing ultimately preventative. Having never been a fan of the “it is easier to apologize than to ask for permission,” I find a lot of solace in Rabbi Jonah’s approach. The penitent is active in…
· Forsaking sin
· Humility in deed
· Crushing physical desire
· Amelioration of one’s deeds in relation to the sin
· Conducting an inner search of one’s ways
· Recognizing the magnitude of sin
· Understanding the severity of lesser sins
· Correcting the misdeed
· Pursuing acts of loving-kindness and truth
· Being constantly aware of the presence of sin
· Forsaking the sin when temptation calls
Recommendations like embracing humility and pursuing acts of loving-kindness and truth go far beyond saying a sincere sorry. They go to the heart of the human condition and how we show up in the world. If we check our ego needs carefully and put the needs of others front and center, we may avoid the need for an apology. When kindness occupies a more formative role in our lives, then perhaps forgiveness will be less critical. I often think of Rabbi A. J. Heschel’s sage words, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” We do change over a lifetime. We change what we value and that changes us in the process.
The University of Waterloo gives us great insight into the component parts of a sincere and meaningful apology. The Gates of Repentance gives us great insight into a sincere and meaningful life. What makes us better human beings isn’t only getting better at apologizing. It’s apologizing less.
Dr. Erica Brown is the author of Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe and serves as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.