Apologies: thought for the season

For those readers who aren’t aware (I’m pretty sure at least one of you isn’t Jewish), we are currently in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews are obligated to remember all our sins and apologise so that god will give us a nice mention in the Book of Life, or something like that.

What has got me writing is an experience that I had recently where a few people let me down  and then asked me to forgive them — which seemed like a rather appropriate thing to do given the festive season (I will not go into the specifics because some of them may be reading this).

At this point, it is worth noting the difference between the Jewish concept of ‘atonement’ and the Christian concept of repentance. In Christian theology, Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, which means that we need to just turn to him and repent and our sins are absolved. It is a very black-and-white idea — sin and you go to hell, repent and you go to heaven.

For Jews, it is not quite so easy. We are required not just to repent, but to actually make amends for things that we have done wrong. Our bad deeds are weighed-up against our good deeds and we are judged on that basis. We are supposed to spend these 10 days atoning, which means delivering sincere apologies to all those whom we have wronged over the past year.

I came across a useful example in an article about teaching kids to apologise, which directed me to this poem:

This Is Just To Say

by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I have a feeling that I’m plagiarising some great Jewish thinker whose name escapes me, but I see three components in a sincere apology:

1) I was wrong. This means expressing regret for actions and not just consequences. It is the difference between saying “I’m sorry that I ate the plums” and not “I’m sorry that I upset you by eating the plums”. Notice that the second does not actually admit that eating the plums was wrong, it actually makes the quite hurtful implication that it is the person who was saving the plums that is at fault because they are overreacting to something that was not itself wrong.

2) I won’t do it again. This is just as important as admitting fault. There is no real point in expressing regret for something if you would just do it again next time. If you cannot commit to not repeating whatever you are apologising for, it is telling the person to whom you are apologising that they are less important to you than whatever you gained from the conduct for which you are apologising.

3) I promise to make it up to you. This one is not always possible, so only applies to some situations. While it is very possible to replace the plums that you ate, if you were cheating on your spouse, there’s not much that you could do except to promise never to do it again.

The last stanza of the poem contains what some might call an apology, however it is more a plea for forgiveness. The protagonist is not actually sorry for eating the plums and does not fulfil the steps outlined above. The only regret is that whoever they are talking to now cannot have the plums that were being saved for breakfast, and so is probably upset. It’s a classic disingenuous apology — “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings”, instead of “I was wrong,  I won’t do it again and I will do what I can to make it up to you.”

From my perspective, it is not worth apologising unless you are actually willing to change your behaviour in accordance with the apology. Doing so is worse than not apologising at all, because it is dishonest. Your goal is to placate a person’s response to actions that you do not in fact regret. You would be better-off just accepting the consequences of your actions.

It is very easy to apologise for something that was genuinely an error, because you will not intend to repeat an error. What is far more difficult is apologising in situations, such as eating the plums, where you did something for your own benefit that hurt another person. For that reason, doing so is all the more meaningful — it says to the person “I was selfish, but I value you and in future I will be more considerate of your feelings.”

If your apology was not sincere, you are in effect admitting that the person to whom you are apologising is less important to you than whatever the benefit was from what you did. I find this quite insulting, I would much sooner know where I stand with someone than have them pretend that they care about how I feel.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed that little drosha. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll write something smartass and political soon enough.


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  1. #1 by Michelle Stein-Evers Frankl on September 28, 2012 - 7:08 pm

    One of my favourite poems; I just taught it to my daughter to memorise for her year 3 class project. her teacher did not understand it. She did.

  1. In defence of Yom Kippur « Major Karnage

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