In my experience, the most difficult words to say are "I'm sorry" or "I was wrong." For some reason, there's a human tendency (call it pride, perhaps, or ego) that makes us avoid taking responsibility for the rude or harsh or unkind things we've said. Even if deep down, we know we made a mistake, we tend to defend it. We try to find an excuse, or insist it wasn't our fault; we claim we were victims of circumstance. Of course, it wasn't anything we did: "mistakes were made," but nobody knows who made them. Or, it was the other person's reaction that caused the problem. But it certainly wasn't us.
You can see this behavior in all walks of life: politicians who, when caught making a factual error, either double down and keep repeating it, or insist their opponent is the one who is wrong; people in relationships who are so eager to blame the other person, and so unwilling to look at their own role in how things are going; students who come up with a millions good reasons why their term paper (which they knew about all semester) is late. I admit I'm as guilty of making excuses or defending my mistakes as anyone else. But at this time of the year, I tend to think about it a little more. After all, it's the Ten Days of Repentance, and that's something I take very seriously.
As any of you who have Jewish friends know, the Ten Days of Repentance are the period from Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). During that time, we are supposed to try to make amends with those we have wronged. But while that may sound easy enough, it's not. For one thing, some of the people we've wronged may no longer want to talk to us. Others are holding onto their anger, even as we are trying to let ours go. And then there's the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this post: while we may know an apology is in order, we can't bring ourselves to say the words.
I struggle with that sometimes. I've had disagreements or arguments with people I cared about, verbal exchanges that seemed so important at the time, yet so trivial and stupid when I looked back on them later on. But even though I knew I should have apologized for my part in the dispute, I didn't. Often, I wished I had; but still, I remained silent. Perhaps that has happened to you too: you allowed a friendship to be lost, or a relationship to be damaged by being unable to humble yourself and admit that maybe you said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
So, for me, the Ten Days of Repentance provides an opportunity: it's a good reason for getting back in contact with someone I may have upset. It creates the possibility that someone I spoke harshly to, even unintentionally, will forgive me and we can get back into communication again. Of course, it comes with a risk: just because I am ready to make amends, the other person may not want to hear it. But still, during this holy season, I have to at least make a sincere effort. And that's what I'm trying to do.
I always tell my students that communication is the most powerful thing we've got. I also tell them that communication is constitutive: it calls something into being that wasn't there before, just by our putting it into language and speaking it. What I am trying to speak during the Ten Days of Repentance is my sincere apology for anything harsh or judgmental or dismissive I may have said; I am trying to call into being the possibility that I will communicate more effectively and with more kindness in the upcoming year. For those who have been reading my blog, whether we have agreed or disagreed, I extend my thanks for your presence in my life; and whether you observe the Ten Days of Repentance or not, I pray that this new year will give you many reasons to be encouraged, and few reasons to be regretful.