Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Slightly Deeper Meditation on Forgiveness

My family's tradition in the days leading up to and including Yom Kippur is to ask one another for forgiveness for any offense or injury that may have been committed over the past year.  This comes out of the Jewish belief that the Yom Kippur prayers cover atonement with God, but reconciliation* with other people is between you and them (background on Yom Kippur is available here).  As such I recently posted to my blog/facebook/twitter status messages that I would like to "ask your forgiveness for any offense or transgression I might have committed against you in the past year."  

I thought this was a fairly widespread Jewish tradition; however I have found that most people to whom I make this request directly, Jewish or not, tend to appear perplexed, responding with laughter and some form of the line, "but what would I forgive you for?"  I realized that I have no idea where this tradition originated or if anyone outside my family practices it.  Nevertheless I believe in its importance, and this led me to do a little reflection on what exactly it means to ask for forgiveness and how such a request might be better phrased to achieve more forgiveness and less confusion.**

The goal, it would seem, is to go through all of our relationships and remove any negative thoughts, rather than allow them to fester into anything deeper or more insidious such as jealousy, resentment, or mere emotional baggage.  My former CEO and boss Sandeep Tyagi referred to this as "emotional defragmentation."  Yet when we ask for "forgiveness," the mind automatically jumps to thoughts of serious deeds or crimes committed, not of little things like the fact that we talk too much or that we are a little arrogant or that we didn't save you food at the company picnic or that we teased just a little too much.  Using the word "transgression" definitely encourages this kind of "severe crime" only thinking, which is why in the first line of this post I've changed it to "injury."  Even "injury" seems too serious to describe most of the things we might have done to the average person in our lives.

And so I find myself asking people to forgive me and having them respond with the quizzical, "but what could you have done?"   Is it because we are uncomfortable admitting to being insulted or offended by what someone else did?  Because we are afraid of the vulnerability that this might imply?  Or is it because we don't want to delve into the recesses of our own mind to think of what that person might indeed have done, or to rehash the offense or the pain we felt from it.  Is it better to let it sit as a minor issue than bring it up and come to the realization that perhaps we don't really forgive the other person?  Or that we can't agree on who was correct in such and such situation?  Does it imply that the cost of emotional defragmentation or catharsis is so great that we should only engage in it with those with whom we have truly deep and vulnerable relationships, and not with those who are merely acquaintances or social friends?  Is it because we consider "minor" offenses to be personality defects that we don't actually think the other is capable of fixing, so what would it mean to "forgive" them?  Does it imply that true forgiveness is so hard to do that we try to pretend it is not necessary, as summed up in the idiom that "To err is human, to forgive divine?"  Perhaps we don't really want to forgive, with all that it entails about self-effacement and accepting others imperfection.

I honestly don't know the answer to these questions.  I suspect that it is the latter, the difficulty of forgiving.  I suspect that we want to avoid confronting the difficulty in forgiving, the degree to which we fall short of the divine (although by definition there should be nothing shameful in this, it is still sometimes hard to admit).  Perhaps then a better way to phrase the request could be to substitute the synonym of "reconciliation" for "atonement" or "forgiveness," and to ask, "Can you reconcile with [accept] me being who I am, including those things about me that you don't like, in particular those things which caused you some annoyance or injury over the past year?"

Asking the question this way would take the question of intentionality out of the picture, and even require accepting disagreeable "personality traits" that will continue even after we have forgiven them (as opposed to something that the other person feels truly "sorry" for and therefore can be expected not to repeat).  Could such a request be made?  Could it be honored?  My rambling reflection complete (more or less), I am curious what you think.

*Yom Kippur is generally translated as the Day of Atonement, where Yom is Day and Kippur is Atonement.  However since the word atonement has heavy spiritual overtones of horrible crimes and divine sentences for grave sins committed, I prefer the more accessible terms of "making amends" or "reconciliation" to discuss interpersonal relationships or merely lesser sins.
** I intentionally write this on Yom Kippur itself, despite the lack of sharpness brought on by not eating or drinking to remedy my body's needs, in hopes that the meaning of the moment will overcome its hunger.

1 comment:

  1. Jordan
    What a nice tradition!
    It is a tough act to seek forgiveness (you prompted me to write a post on this topic in my blog).
    I think you are talking about seeking forgiveness for accidental acts or words which may have caused hurt. The key is to share with others that you had never intended them harm. So one way maybe is to say or write something like,
    "Dear so and so, you are an important part of my life. Through all my thoughts, words and actions, I wish you well and do what I believe is best for both of us. If sometime in the past year you felt that it was not the case, then I am sorry. I assure you that even the thought of causing you harm has not crossed my mind. If you would like to talk to me about something which still feels like that, I am always available to you."
    Of course, it will only work if you really mean it!