Saturday, September 30, 2017

"The Art of the…Apology" – Sermon–Kol Nidre/Yom Kippur Evening–September 29, 2017

     We are about to do it again.  It’s something we have done every year.
It’s something that could be easy, but it’s very, very difficult.
According to a Scottish proverb, open confession is good for the soul.
  Why is that so? 
  There are numerous biblical explanations, one coming from the 32nd Chapter of the Book of Psalms:  “Happy is one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over. Happy the person whom the ETERNAL ONE does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. As long as I said nothing, my limbs wasted away from my anguished roaring all day long. For night and day Your hand lay heavy on me; my vigor waned as in the summer drought.   Then I acknowledged my sin to You; I did not cover up my guilt; I resolved, “I will confess my transgressions to the ETERNAL ONE,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all faithful people pray to You upon discovering their sin that the rushing mighty waters not overtake them. You are my shelter; You preserve me from distress; You surround me with the joyous shouts of deliverance.”
   We learn from Psalm 32 that confession is good for more than just our soul.  This ancient song asserts that failing to admit one’s wrongdoing can destroy us inside and make us feel as if floodwaters have swept us away, never to return.  Confession, on the other hand, preserves our strength and prevents the destruction of our very essence. 
   So open confession is good for the body as well as for the soul. That well-known Scottish proverb has nothing on Psalm 32.   Apparently, the main benefit of reciting the VIDUI, the confessional prayers, during our Yom Kippur worship is that we will feel better.  
    We may even feel better when we confess sins we did not commit. Reciting these prayers as a community reminds us that we are responsible for each other.   We are all admitting, together, that we human beings have much for which we need to apologize, at least to God, and often, and more importantly, to each other.  And we can, if we choose, offer support and guidance to one another, which can strengthen our own individual moral character and the integrity of our community as a whole.
     Apologizing is an important step in the process of T’SHUVAH, repentance, in which we engage every High Holy Days.  We probably don’t think of the VIDUI, the confessional prayers, as a model for everyday apologies that we might make.   Our prayers, though, do present us with the proper language to use when we say we are sorry and admit our culpability to the people whom we have wronged or disappointed.
   In the introductory paragraph in this section of the service on page 82, we admit that even though we may tend to be arrogant and stubborn at times, we need to be self-aware about the fact that we make mistakes.  We have, most definitely, sinned.
    The ASHAMNU prayer on page 82 presents a detailed list of human errors in judgment and action.   There are no ifs, ands, or buts about what we in the human family have collectively done.  It’s all there. It is an alphabetical listing in Hebrew.  In English, it is just overwhelming.  Look at it for a few moments and examples will too easily come to mind of real situations that could illustrate each of those sins.
    The AL CHEIT recitation in this new prayerbook, MISHKAN HANEFESH, on page 86 and following, precedes each act of wrongdoing with phrases addressed to God that recount “the ways we have wronged You” or “the harm we have caused in Your world.”  It doesn’t say “the ways that only some of us have wronged You, God, and because I didn’t do it, I am skipping out on this one.”   If we are committed to being a close-knit community, reciting every line reaffirms our resolve to collectively act with a sense of righteousness and goodness.
   All of these prayers lead us to confess our sins sincerely, honesty, and directly.   We don’t make excuses.   Being human may be a reason that we inevitably make the wrong choices.  Being human also calls on us to restore relationships that need repair.   Even if we have engaged in bitter conflict with other people, I believe that the human spirit and the still, small voice inside of us crave equilibrium. 
    We can, I am sure, think of times when apology from a friend or colleague or when our own apology to another person brought healing.  There may have been other times when an apology did not help.    We can also think of many instances when a lack of apology left a lingering residue of disappointment, sadness, and regret.    
     And some leaders of organizations and corporations don’t know how to reach beyond their own concerns when they apologize.    After the recent Equifax data breach, NBC news reported on September 10 that Richard Smith, now former chairman and CEO of Equifax, apologized to "consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes.”  He said,  “This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do.”
     Smith didn’t do badly, but it could have been a lot better.   Perhaps he could have spoken directly to the customers like this: “We are sorry for how this breach has hurt you, our customers. We will help you to ensure the security of your information, from now on, with even greater diligence than before.  We know we need to do better.”   Mr. Smith could have said that.  But he didn’t.    
    When it comes to apologies, we know better.   I recently asked congregants to respond to two questions:  “What are the elements of a good and sincere apology?   What keeps people from apologizing when they did something wrong?”    Your responses demonstrate a sound understanding of human nature and personal and communal consideration.
Here are some of your statements about the art of making a good and sincere apology:
·         The person means what he or she is saying.   What not to say is, "If I've offended you.....".  There are many examples of this type of statement from politicians.
·      An apology should be honest and from the heart, and should not include the word “but.”
·      For sincerity, one must openly acknowledge and express what one is apologizing for, very specifically.   One should speak exactly to the act or words that might have caused hurt, to whatever was not considerate or proper. 
·      The apologizer has to understand the "affront," realize its wrongness and accept responsibility for his or her words or actions. 
·      The apologizer should try to empathize with the "affronted" person and understand his or her pain.
·      The apologizer has to be committed to changing his or her behavior so that it won’t happen again. 
·      You can't apologize to someone other than the person harmed. This is because no one else can forgive except the injured person. And that's because an apology that does not offer genuine and substantial restitution is no apology at all and is undeserving of forgiveness. If no other restitution is possible, at the very least the one who did the harm can take substantial steps to avoid doing similar harm in the future.
·      You can't apologize for someone else. You can apologize for unjust harm you or your organization caused but you can't apologize for doing something for which you bear no personal responsibility. 
·      An apology should serve to bring together members of the community who have been driven apart by evil acts. Mutual apologies can be perfectly legitimate and are useful in ending cycles of recrimination.
·      We need to be able to recognize when “I’m sorry” isn’t enough.” 
·      There are times when an apology should not be accepted, especially in situations where the purpose of the apology is to avoid legitimate consequences for one's evil act. 
·      Both people need an opportunity to understand each other. Even those who are self-aware might not realize that they have caused any pain or sadness.  
And the second question: What might keep people from apologizing? 
·      Pride, tired of being the big person, realizing that often an apology is one sided, and there is too much stuff piled up so that you can't remember the original "sin."
·      Not everyone is able to muster the necessary courage to face the person to whom the apology is due. 
·      Fear of the reaction and possible rejection they will get from the person to whom they are apologizing.  
·      An inability to admit having made a mistake or hurting others or a refusal to own one’s words or actions. 
·      Fear of being isolated by the group.
·      Anger, stubbornness, ignorance of one’s own rudeness, and being self-absorbed with no concern for another’s feelings.
·      For some, to apologize may carry legal liability (like after a car accident or related to professional malpractice).   One interesting study said that doctors or hospital authorities who apologize were less likely to be sued than those who didn't.    
·      The person is not sure what to say or how to say it.  
·      Being overcome by embarrassment or shame once they recognize the wrong they did. 
   In an article several years ago in Psychology Today, Dr. Denise Dellarosa Cummins gave valuable counsel to people who have trouble apologizing.  She said,  “Apologizing doesn’t mean admitting inferiority, unworthiness, or weakness. It doesn’t mean groveling or debasing yourself. People who demand that of you aren’t asking for an apology. They are asking for submission, and that is quite a different thing.  An apology first and foremost communicates a simple message that affirms your humanity and that of the injured party: ‘I see and I care’.”
      Writer Marjorie Ingall once offered a meaningful insight about apologizing in an article in Tablet magazine:  “A good apology means laying yourself bare…It means putting yourself in the other person’s position, giving them what they want and need. In short, it’s not about you. And even though I’ve been analyzing apologies for two years, it’s something I need to keep reminding myself, during the High Holidays and all the time. Sinning is easy; apologizing is hard.”
     The original impetus that led me to discuss what makes for a good apology came from the publication this past January of Dr. Harriett Lerner’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize?.  I have always seen Dr. Lerner as a great source of wisdom and counsel since the time when she and her husband and their two sons were members of the congregation I served in Kansas. Her book presents a wide range of situations and examples from which she derived important guidelines for how to say we are sorry and how we can overcome our reluctance to do so. 
    In one of her recent articles on this topic, Dr. Lerner presented criteria for “true apologies”:
·      “A true apology does not include the word “but.” “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.   It keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at the party last night,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said at the party last night. It was insensitive and uncalled for.” Own your behavior and apologize for it, period.
·      A true apology does not overdo.  It stays focused on acknowledging the feelings of the hurt party without overshadowing them with your own pain or remorse.  It also doesn’t get caught up in who's to blame or who "started it." Maybe you’re only 14% to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”
·      A true apology needs to be backed by corrective action.   If your sister mentions she’s paid for your last few dinners together, apologize and let her know that you plan to pay for the next few.
·      A true apology requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance. Obviously, it doesn’t help to apologize with a grand flourish and then continue the very behavior you apologized for.
·      A true apology should not serve to silence another person, nor should an apology be used as a quick way out to get yourself out of a difficult conversation or dispute.  It shouldn’t be be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse.  Not all apologies are welcome. Making amends may be part of your healing process, but find another way to heal if the other person doesn’t want to hear from you.
·      A true apology recognizes when “I’m sorry” is not enough.  A serious hurt or betrayal requires repair work over time to restore trust.”
In one of the interviews she gave about her book, Dr. Lerner was asked if leaders should be willing to apologize if they want to be effective in their work and service.   Dr. Lerner explained:  “Our ability to lead, whether at home or at work, rests on our ability to orient to reality, and to take responsibility for our mistakes, and to apologize for them. The level of respect we earn from others, as well as our own level of maturity, rest squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to take a clear-eyed look at the ways that our behavior affects others, and to be fully accountable for our mistakes without blaming others.   The courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely and well is at the heart of friendship, leadership, marriage, parenting and being grounded in maturity, integrity and self-worth.  It’s hard to imagine what’s more important than that.”    
     So when we apologize, we are called on to remember that it’s not about us: it is about our relationships, it is about the person who experienced hurt because of something we did or something someone else did that we could have prevented.   As we are about to begin the VIDUI prayers in the service, let us be further guided by this prayer by Alden Solovy:
G-d of Old,
Judge and Sovereign,
Healer and Guide:
Today I recount my deeds,
The sins I’ve committed,
The blessings I’ve bestowed.
Today I recall my year,
The challenges I’ve faced,
The decisions I’ve made.
Today I reach into my heart,
The moments of anger,
The moments of love.
By Your command
G-d of Mercy,
I lay bare the secrets within me,
Light and darkness,
My gentle hand and my clenched fist,
My strength and conceit,
Anger and fear.
By Your command
G-d of Wisdom,
I open myself to see truth,
Beauty and degradation,
The holy and the profane,
The victorious and the guilty.
By Your command
G-d of Salvation,
I reclaim all that I am
And all that I’ve done,
My pride and my shame,
Returning to You
So that I may redeem my days
With awe and righteousness.
 As we recite these prayers, may our sincerity and honesty suffuse our souls so that these words that we recite will guide us to truth, hope, goodness, self-awareness and compassion in this new year.   And may our presence here, standing with our community, strengthen our resolve to achieve and maintain, between us, bonds of love and peace.


·       Are You Big Enough to Apologize?  New research explains why we hate apologizing. Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind Posted Apr 01, 2013

·       TABLET MAGAZINE -  How To Say You’re Sorry - As Yom Kippur approaches, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to apologize—and how not to -  By Marjorie Ingall - 9/29/2014

· - The 9 Rules for True Apologies - First of all, the word 'but' is never part of one.   Harriet Lerner Ph.D. Posted Sep 14, 2014
·       FORBES  JAN 12, 2017 @ 09:15 AM 4,88 Why Won't You Apologize? Relationship Expert Harriet Lerner Teaches Us How - By Kathy Caprino
·       Meditation before the Yom Kippur Vidui  © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

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