Growing up in my family, I don’t remember hearing anyone say “I’m sorry.” It was unheard of to ask for forgiveness, and apologizing was tantamount to admitting weakness or defeat. Nevertheless, as the youngest, I said “I’m sorry” many times a day as a way of fending off criticism or attack. The cost of this was that I felt a lot of shame. Only in my adult life did I come to see the benefits of genuine apologies and the wisdom of forgiveness.
We have just finished observing Yom Kippur, the holiest and most contemplative day in the Jewish religion. It begins the night before, on what is called Kol Nidre. Prayers asking for collective forgiveness are repeated throughout the evening and the following day. It is a time for reflecting upon all the ways we have transgressed or made mistakes, including hurting someone we love and even perhaps someone we don’t know. The list of possibilities is pages long. Whether we did it or not, we are expected to ask God’s forgiveness on behalf of our community, even if we are not personally guilty.
I used to find this terrifying. But even harder was the related tradition that Paul taught me when our sons were young. Every year during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we spend time together in twos, asking each other’s forgiveness for specific things we have done that might have hurt the other. We begin by saying, “Will you forgive me for…..?” We end by asking them to tell us if we have forgotten anything. Then we reverse roles.
Childhood had taught me to bury my faults and misdemeanors because I never felt forgiven. So I simply said, “I’m sorry,” hoping to defray attack, and left it at that. I have since realized that saying “I’m sorry” is often used as a way of deflecting a deeper issue. It is easy to say without sincerity.
Asking for forgiveness is something deeper. It requires admitting to and owning one’s mistakes or missteps, and being accountable. Conversely, when I find it hard to forgive someone else, it usually means I need to forgive myself first for something similar.
Of course, I still feel badly if I hurt someone or do something wrong, but I no longer feel plagued by guilt if I am able to admit it to myself and the person I’ve affected, and most importantly, make a decision about how I’ll handle a similar situation next time.. When I am ready to forgive myself I can honestly say “I’m sorry,” and ask for another’s forgiveness more easily and sincerely.
What do you need to forgive yourself for?