“ANATOMY AND SPIRITUALITY OF APOLOGY”
By Peg Morgan
A Sermon for West Seattle UU Fellowship
September 22, 2002
During this month, when Jewish people observe Yom Kippur, the last day of their annual days of repentance, it is a good time to examine the anatomy of an apology.
And it seems that in any topic I choose, there are both personal and political applications. Last week the North Korean President confessed that in the 1970s and 80s, North Korean agents kidnapped 11 Japanese citizens in order to teach language and culture to spies. This sensational admission ended years of denials by the North Korean leadership. The North Korean strongman apologized and promised not to repeat such misconduct. The Japanese are now agonizing over whether it was an adequate apology.
We have heard apologies from South Africa for Apartheid, from Germany for the Holocaust, and even from our President for the sins of slavery.
So you may apply my remarks today on a personal or political level—though I will speak from the perspective of our personal lives.
MY MISTAKE AND POOR APOLOGY
I have made my share of mistakes in my life, and I have regrets for things I’ve done. But I have always heard that “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” There was an incident in my life when I wondered where divine forgiveness had gone.
I was just two years out of graduate social work school, in 1972—thirty years ago. I was twenty-seven years old. I was working for a state mental health agency serving low-income families. One of the social workers working there, whom I admired the most, was an African American woman, named Jeanne. She was twenty years my senior. She was tall and beautiful inside and out. She was wise, committed, and generous in her mentoring of me. We had developed a connection, a bond.
One day we had made plans for me to take her to pick up her car after work. We were all sitting around having lunch, about five of us. That was when someone asked me about my red hair. I wish I had a dollar for each time while I was growing up, that someone had asked me where I got my red hair. Did either of my parents have red hair? They didn't. I had heard my parents answer the question many times, with a sentence that always got a laugh. I learned to answer as they did. Maybe you have had a time when you said words, words that you had not fully reflected on to really understand what they could mean, but you’d heard them used before. I automatically said words I had heard often but never really reflected on. I smiled, anticipating their laugh, and said while Jeanne was smiling intently at me, "No, my parents didn't have red hair; there must have been a 'nigger' in the wood pile." The smile on my face receded when I saw Jeanne’s face turn angry. I got that upset feeling in my gut, and I said to myself, “Oh my god, what did I say?” I realized quickly what I had said. Just like I can't put toothpaste back into a toothpaste tube, I couldn't put my words back inside my mouth. She stood up and walked away. I followed her and said I was sorry. She didn't respond. She would not even let me take her to her car that evening. I didn't blame her, I blamed myself. My simple "I'm sorry" was not enough. It wasn’t adequate enough to undo the harm. I wanted to run away. I felt flushed, shaky, and sick to my stomach.
There was only about a month left in the program that I was hired to do. Even so, every time I saw Jeanne during that month my heart sank. To her I had ceased to exist. I would need to get forgiveness elsewhere. I would need to face some things about myself.
THE HUMAN CONDITION AND OUR RELIGIOUS RESPONSE
Humans have always sought ways to confess our errors and to seek absolution from the guilt and pain of having broken a bond between another and us, or between our God and us. Religious traditions practice different rituals to help with this human predicament.
My husband is Buddhist. A Buddhist practice calls for personal reflection on the consequences of past actions. A young Buddhist monk came to his teacher, upset after a period of such reflection. During the meditation he had an insight of how he had once, with cruel words, harmed someone. He was very agitated because the person he had offended had died and he couldn’t apologize for the harm. The old Buddhist teacher spoke to him, saying that apologies sometimes are best given to yourself. Look inside and focus on your remorse. Is it real remorse? If it is, then, with great sincerity, resolve to never repeat the offense again.
My daughter-in-law is Jewish. In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement.” It is the Jewish New Year and signals an opportunity for a fresh start. During the 10 days just before Yom Kippur, it is a tradition for Jews to go to people they know, asking each person to forgive them for any unkind things they had done during the year. God would not mend or forgive these hurts. Only the person wronged can forgive. Then on Yom Kippur, the day is spent in spiritual prayer and reflection, acknowledging the reality of the human tendency to break our vows, and turning to God for strength for the New Year.
In my childhood religion of Catholicism, the ritual of confession to the priest let me admit to another human being, who in fact represented God, that I had sinned and perhaps caused pain to another. I can still remember the words. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was four weeks ago. These are my sins.” Then I would tell the priest what I had done wrong. The priest would then give me a penance, usual the assignment of 3 “Our Fathers,” and several “Hail Marys.” Then that small penance would allow me to feel a sense of relief, of making amends, and allow me to get on with my life.
Do you want to know what I confessed? My sins, usually repeated month after month, were: gossiping with my friends and fighting with my brother. Disappointed? My wilder days came later in life.
Three very different religious approaches to our human need to process in some way the fact that we have offended or hurt another. These traditions, developed in different parts of the world teach us a great deal about our common humanity and desire for forgiveness.
ANATOMY OF APOLOGY
During my college years, I decided that I would be just as well off to talk directly with the person I hurt, and get the priest and the God of my childhood out of the way. So I began wondering, what constitutes a good apology?
First, we have to be aware, we have to recognize what we have done that has hurt someone. We may have broken a vow or neglected a loved one. It might be something we did, or something we didn’t do. We can’t recognize this unless we slow down our pace to pay attention to how our relationship with our friend is flowing. Slowing down, paying attention, attending, recognizing…an important first step.
Once we realize that we have offended we need to discern whether we feel sorry. Do we regret our act or lack of doing something-- because of the hurt caused, and the damage to the good feeling we shared with another? If so, and only if so, we can express our regret by telling the person we have wronged that we feel badly about specific behavior, that we are sorry for the hurt we caused in our bond.
This takes sincerity because if we are not sincere it will be obvious. An example of how this is poorly expressed is the insincere apology of a US Senator, for whom allegations of indiscretions and financial illegalities had been on-going. Ultimately proof was presented to the Ethics Committee, to which his response was …
"I'm apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did."
I think we’ve all been there-- when we just hoped no one would find out what we did, because we knew by some standard that we did wrong.
That seems the case with the senator, and his apology was shallow, prompted only by getting caught. It reminds me of the sentiment of Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who bemoaned healing wounds lightly—merely putting a bandage on the wound without cleaning or stitching it. Shallow apologies are like healing wounds lightly. More likely in our own lives, a light apology would be something like, “OK, I’m sorry. Can you please just drop it now?” Or “I’m sorry I did that, but I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t…”
The degree to which we are truly sorry is carried in the sound of our words. Simone Weil, French philosopher, teacher and mystic of the early 1900’s, wrote an essay on the power of words, in which she said, “The same words can be commonplace or extra-ordinary according to the manner in which they are spoken. And this …depends on the depth of the region in a person’s being from which they proceed, without the will being able to do anything. And by a marvelous agreement--- they reach the same region in the person who hears them. Thus, the hearer can discern …what is the value of words.” Parabola Vol. II, #4, p. 38
The final step in apology is a promise for the future. In the Jewish culture this is the step of teshuuvah—a turning away from what we did, renouncing what we did, and making a promised change in direction. This step includes promising to sincerely try to not re-offend.
SPIRITUALITY OF APOLOGY
Recognizing, regretting, renouncing…these are steps of apology. And within these steps is a spiritual element. But before I talk about the spirituality of apology, let me first say what I mean by the word spiritual. It can mean many things.
By “spirituality” I mean our “experience of relationship and connection with any part of, or all of, the universe, made possible by the working together of all our human centers of knowing; our minds, our bodies, our heart sense, and our intuition.” Our spirituality is our experience, …through the ways of our knowing, …of our relationship and connection with other life.
The spiritual power of our apology lies not in admitting that we did wrong, for as Pema Chodron spoke earlier in our reading, just focusing on the whole right and wrong part closes us down and makes our world small. No, the spiritual power of apology is in the acknowledging how we have affected our connection with each other. It is in the knowing--through our minds, our bodies, our hearts and our intuitions--and saying what we know, how we have affected the caring and love between us. That is the real depth and spirit of apology. The power of this kind of apology is spiritual because it concentrates on the primary importance of our connection with others.
It’s about noticing that a connection is broken and it is about trying to find a way to make it whole again.
AND THEN WHAT?
Such a deep apology is courageous, but as LaoTse, the Chinese philosopher said 2000 years ago, “because of deep love we are courageous.” It is courageous because we do not know how our friend will respond, or if perhaps we may be rejected. Our apology, like any time we speak to another, holds a request, this time the request is for love. Please hear that I am sorry. Please hear that I know I hurt us. Please know that I will try to be better in the future. Please love me still, and help us get back to our precious relationship. Please forgive me.
And after the apology—we can pause, breathe, and listen to what gets said.
But, we may be disappointed.
What do we do when we have fully expressed our sorrow and asked for forgiveness but the other person does not forgive us? We need to get on with the work of forgiving ourselves—through reflection, self talk, talking with a trusted person, or whatever works for you.
If we are need a more active approach, we might consider doing something similar to what the ancient Israelites used to do. They would bring a sacrifice to the Gods. Some scholars say the purpose was not to bribe God. Rather, it was to experience that while the Israelites knew they weren't perfect, they showed to themselves that they were also thoughtful, disciplined and generous. Since God accepted them and their gifts, they could walk away feeling forgiven and good. Not unlike my own childhood confession and penance process.
So it can be with us today in our UU tradition. We won't take a slaughtered calf to the altar, but we can offer to help a neighbor, or go cook in a soup kitchen, or volunteer to do something at the Fellowship. This is not just a good work, it is also a penance. As Rabbi Kushner, author of How Good Do We Have to Be, explains, such penance works this way: "At the rational level, giving charity doesn't undo the selfish or thoughtless thing we did to prompt the guilt feeling in the first place. But at the irrational level, where our souls live, it does introduce us to our better, nobler self. Deed 'balances' deed; the voice of healthy pride counters the nagging, disapproving voice of a guilty conscience." (p. 63)
Ironically, though we worry our apology may not “be accepted” the opposite can occur. By apologizing, we open ourselves up to a deeper, more trusting and more intimate relationship with another. That's because in offering our own vulnerability, we touch each other on a deeper human level. Don’t we feel safer with someone who had the courage to be vulnerable?
If the apology is sincere and if it is accepted, then the healing of the broken bond can make the relationship even stronger, like what happens when a broken bone heals. The body makes sure the bonding that grows at the break is secure and stronger than before. So can reaching each other, at a deep human level, heal and strengthen our mutual bond of love.
We all have times when we wish we could live a few moments over, say something different, speak up when we were silent, do something we wish we had done, or not do something we wish we had not done. These times signal our humanness, and as painful as they are, they also offer us opportunity for deepening intimacy.
It would be my hope that the next time this happens to you or me, we might find courage to make a good apology, and in the words of my colleague, Rev. Mark Belletini:
“Where there is a mountain that stands between me and… [Apologizing to] another, let me at least not be afraid to seed flowers on my side of the mountain and cultivate a garden on that dread slope.
Where there is a rushing river that separates, may I at least begin by taking off my socks and getting my feet wet in the cold running water. If I take time to test the rocks, I could even get across.
When there is fire that separates, may I at least be willing to walk away so I’m not always choking on the smoke.
And where the separation is a mirror, may I carefully crack the mirror without superstition about luck or fears about sharp edges.”
Ultimately, the choice to apologize or to forgive ourselves is ours, and the choice to forgive others comes in the service of our own healing and in the deepening of intimacy with another. May there be many flowers blooming on the mountainsides.
May love, which gives life its beauty
and purpose, which gives life its relevance
and reverence, which gives life its sacredness
be strong within each of us, deepening our relationship with all of life.