At this writing, I am about to lead my congregation in the observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This day of fasting and introspection includes congregational prayers of confession that have a long history in Jewish worship.
The most important application of these prayers to daily life is their guidance in how we present our apologies when we have erred in our words and actions.
In my own exploration about apologies, I learned that some people believe that they are more powerful when they refrain from saying they are sorry. Psalm 32 counters that notion, indicating that a person who did not confess his or her sins would be overcome with anguish as if he or she was in the midst of a “summer drought.” The famous Scottish proverb about confession with which many of us are familiar actually says this: “OPEN confession is good for the soul.”
A facet of confessional prayers in a synagogue on Yom Kippur is that they are recited by the worshippers all together and aloud (mostly) with “we” language that offers direct admission of sins that human beings, as a whole, commit: “We betray…we are cruel…we lie…we disobey…we corrupt…we go astray…we lead others astray.”
This year, I asked members of my congregation to suggest what makes for a good and sincere apology and what might keep someone from apologizing.
Their comments were comprehensive and insightful. They explained that apologies should come from the heart and include specific language, leaving out the words “but” and “if,” which serve to negate the apologizer’s message. An apology needs to demonstrate that the person has taken responsibility for his or her actions, that he/she understands the hurt caused, that restitution will be made, and that the person will not repeat the words or actions that caused the hurt.
They surmised that people may refrain from apologizing because of pride, a lack of courage, fear of rejection, anger, stubbornness, arrogance, a lack of self-awareness, and being uncertain of just what to say.
The impetus for my focus on apologies this year came from the book Why Won’t You Apologize? by Dr. Harriett Lerner. Dr. Lerner, who was a congregant of mine when I served in Topeka, Kansas, presented a wide range of situations in her work from which she derived important guidelines for how to say we are sorry and how we can overcome our reluctance to do so. Dr. Lerner gave guidance on how, within our complex relationships, apologies can heal hurts that may have lasted for decades.
In an interview about her book, Dr. Lerner explained that being able to apologize is so important for people in all walks of life: “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.”
“I’m sorry” is a statement that has the potential to bring people closer together and restore relationships. These might be the most important and pivotal words we will ever say.