I’m Sorry. Please Forgive Me.
Opening Your Heart
The Jewish High Holidays kicked off with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on Wednesday, September 28 and continues until Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – on October 8. The ten day span between those two events is often called the Days of Awe. It is time when we are asked to reflect on the past year and the ways we have ‘missed the mark,’ the literal translation for the Hebrew word often translated as ‘sin.’
Part of that work is to ask for forgiveness from others for ways we might have caused distress or pain or created distance and misunderstanding. We are told that we can work out our relationship with God through prayer, with ourselves in a variety of personal ways, yet when it comes to clearing what has happened with others, we are supposed to do it as personally as possible.
Hopefully that will be in person, or by phone or letter. (I don’t think doing it by text message or posting it on Facebook counts, but I haven’t checked to see if that is something that is happening in our wired world.)
That yearly opportunity for saying I’m sorry and asking forgiveness from friends and family is something I both dread and appreciate. Apologizing is only the first part of it. The deeper need is to inquire about what we have done that has been painful or uncomfortable for the other person. It means listening and not defending or explaining or pushing back with any kind of “…Well, you also…”
It means hearing about things you wouldn’t have imagined were hard for someone else; comments you made that felt critical; changed plans that someone else took to mean you didn’t care about them.
A friend recently shared a teaching she had heard from her Rabbi. The teaching was about the “Four Levels of Apology.”
Level One is the polite “I’m sorry” we say for when we inadvertently do something like bumping into someone, or interrupt what they are saying. It isn’t deep, but it is polite and expected. It isn’t hard, and it keeps the wheels of interaction working smoothly.
Level Two is when we acknowledge we hadn’t known we had caused hurt by something we did or said. It might not have been on purpose, or it might have been, but we hear the feelings and apologize. We might find it hard to take the other person’s complaints seriously and their holding on to it for a long time might seem petty. But it happened and we need to honor that what we did was not okay for them.
Level Three is an apology which actually recognizes that “it could have been me.” It is really imagining how the hurt you caused, had it happened to you, would have also wounded you.
Level Four is the deepest and most important. It should properly be expressed as: “Thank you for telling me.” It is an opportunity to transform how we behave, and change how we interact. It allows us to look at ourselves through the eyes of another person, seeing how they see us, and recognizing how different that might be from how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen.
That level of apology and discovery, while not easy, can be freeing. We can truly apologize and ask forgiveness and mean it because we really do want our lives to have less conflict and confusion. And we want our relationships to be loving, supportive and empathetic.
Having gone through those levels in terms of what we have done to others, we are still left with the other side of the equation: telling someone when they have hurt us.
Sometimes that feels harder than admitting what we have done and committing to changing. Being able to say what someone has said or done that caused you pain. We may think of it as not that important compared to ‘serious’ things that people deal with – job loss, health issues, etc. We might even feel embarrassed and petty bringing it up.
If we can let it go, all the better.
But sometimes we can’t. The ‘small’ thing – comments that we take as criticism, a behavior that feels dismissive or insensitive – rankles. We may have decided that those behaviors are ‘just how they are, they’re not going to change.’ And that leaves out the possibility for real depth and real change for both of us.
Neither asking forgiveness nor telling someone they have hurt us is easy. Women tend to apologize almost reflexively and sometimes defensively. That makes it harder to really stop to think about something that we really have done or didn’t do that creates distress.
I read somewhere that men tend to feel guilty about things they did and women tend to feel guilty about things they didn’t do. I am surprised how often that seems to be true for me. But there is also plenty I do and say that miss the mark.
I want to enter the New Year with a lighter load and more clarity about how to keep hurts felt or caused from piling up.