Over the last few weeks I have received several mass emails with similar messages:
"In the spirit of the month of Elul -- the time when we ask for forgiveness and prepare for repentance during the coming Holy Days -- if I have in any way harmed or offended you, please forgive me."
When I first received such an email several years ago it seemed that this was an appropriate message, and I wrote back to the sender noting that there was no reason to apologize, and thanking him for taking the time to write such a "thoughtful note." Over time, though, I have come to see how such a note and my glib response trivialize the work of forgiveness and repentance, and point to a common, and potentially harmful, misunderstanding of these terms.
Repentance is a word that probably makes most of us uncomfortable. It sounds archaic and harsh, and can carry the association of self-abuse or shame, implying anything from condemning self-talk ("How could I have done that? I'm such an idiot!"), to denying physical pleasure, to actual self-mutilation (i.e. the crazed monk in "The DaVinci Code"). This image of repentance tells us that we must be punished in order to force a positive corrective behavioral change. No wonder we dislike the idea of repentance.
And we may think of forgiveness as simply letting go of anger, hatred and resentment toward someone who (we think) has wronged us. While this is an essential and healthy component of forgiveness, allowing us, at best, to release destructive emotions, it is incomplete because it is only self-directed. It requires nothing of the one who has wronged us, and therefore does nothing to actually repair the damage that has been done, or to prevent future damage. And because it is a totally internal process it is susceptible to delusion, as we can convince ourselves that we've let go of anger while only pushing it deeper in to unconsciousness, hidden below a façade of smiling equanimity, where the resentment simmers and strengthens.
Repentance and forgiveness, though, are much richer, more active, more powerful, more true and much more difficult than such distorted and incomplete images imply. Together, repentance and forgiveness are the basic mechanisms of personal and societal growth, directing us through a deliberate, and often uncomfortable, path of honest self-evaluation.
The Hebrew word that is often translated as repentance -- teshuvah -- is more accurately translated as "returning." Repentance, then, is the process that is used to correct destructive actions by returning us to our True-self -- the commitment to courageous love in truth -- and away from the ego-self's need to dominate and control, which was the attitude that caused the destruction action. This is a powerful shift, which is the goal of all spiritual practice. And Jewish teachings have mapped a process of repentance, identifying four distinct and necessary steps.
The first step begins with a basic recognition: I made a mistake; I did something that hurt another. While this sounds obvious (who doesn't make mistakes?) it is a very difficult first step because our inclination is to avoid accepting mistakes for fear that we will be rejected or abandoned if we are not perfect. This refusal to objectively and compassionately accept our own fallibility comes from shame -- the belief that there is something inherently wrong with you that can never be changed. In repentance, though, the recognition of fallibility is not one of shame, but is one of gratitude and curiosity. Seen from the view of Spirit, mistakes are unopened gifts, containing instruction on what you need to do in order to be more fully who you are meant to be. At the moment of this first step, Jewish tradition tells us, you are forgiven by God because you have returned to your True-self. In other words, you have repaired the spiritual damage (not to avoid punishment, but to be a blessing to the world). But this is only the first step, because you have not yet done anything to fix the damage that you have done to others.
The next step, therefore, is outward, toward the one that you have hurt. And it is also deceptively simple: Apologize. This is much more than a mumbled, "I am sorry," which is usually an attempt to placate another or to avoid action. A sincere apology is the courageous and generous act of feeling how your actions have hurt another -- not so that you will feel guilty (which is a self-indulgent act), but to be a receptacle. In the presence of the one that you have hurt, you honestly acknowledge what you have done, and then put yourself to the side and let their emotions penetrate your heart. This is tremendously healing to both of you, as the other releases and you receive. The person that you have hurt may not be willing to connect with you this deeply, and here you must be generous enough to allow the other to control the pace and dynamic, with no expectations or agendas.
Whether the person accepts your apology or not you are obliged to take the third step: Repair the damage. This, of course, will depend on the situation, ranging from a heartfelt hug to monetary restitution to something much more. The level of your commitment to repair is indicative of your sincerity, and there are those who have committed their lives to fixing the repercussions of their actions.
The last step is a test of the effectiveness of the process: Don't make the same mistake again. When you are faced with the same situation that caused your mistake, you act differently, in a way that does not cause harm. Perhaps you don't automatically respond in anger to criticism like you always had; or you don't manipulate another to get what you want; you don't steal, lie, or cheat. You act from your True-self. Then you know that the process has been effective, and you are fully free. This is repentance, and it is one of the most beautiful acts that a human can do.
It is only now, after the complete process of repentance, that forgiveness can occur. Forgiveness is the noble act of giving trust to the one that has harmed you, and you cannot forgive one who has not truly repented because the person has not earned trust. It is as irresponsible to forgive one who is unrepentant as to give a sharp tool to a child. But once trust is restored, you do not need to struggle to let go of anger or resentment because the cause has been corrected. This kind of forgiveness applies to ourselves as well. After repentance, forgive yourself!
In this light, repentance and forgiveness are powerful conscious processes that bring growth and lasting healing. That is why for Jews the holiest days of the year are those when we commit our lives to these processes.
Wishing you all the courage to repent and forgive.