October Tip: I’m sorry

The Jewish High Holiday cycle provides a designated time when we are asked to reflect on the past year and the ways we have ‘missed the mark,’ the literal translation for the Hebrew word often translated as ‘sin.’

Part of that work is to ask for forgiveness from others for ways we might have caused distress or pain or created distance and misunderstanding. We are told that we can work out our relationship with God through prayer and in a variety of personal ways. When it comes to clearing what has happened with others, we are supposed to do it as directly as possible.

That yearly opportunity for saying I’m sorry and asking forgiveness from friends and family is something I both dread and appreciate. Apologizing is only the first part of it. The next step involves inquiring about what we have done that has been painful or uncomfortable for the other person. It means listening and not defending or explaining or pushing back with any kind of “…Well, you also…”

It means hearing about things you wouldn’t have imagined were hard for someone else; comments you made that felt critical; changed plans that someone else took to mean you didn’t care about them.

I recently rediscovered some writing I did about a teaching I found helpful: “Four Levels of Apology.” I offer it now for whatever help it gives!

 Level One is the polite “I’m sorry” we say for when we inadvertently do something like bumping into someone, or interrupt what they are saying. It isn’t deep, but it is polite and expected. It isn’t hard, and it keeps the wheels of interaction working smoothly.

Level Two is when we acknowledge we hadn’t known we had caused hurt by something we did or said. It might not have been on purpose, or it might have been, but we hear the feelings and apologize. We might find it hard to take the other person’s complaints seriously and their holding on to it for a long time might seem petty. But it happened and we need to honor that what we did was not okay for them.

Level Three is an apology which actually recognizes that “it could have been me.” It is imagining how the hurt you caused, had it happened to you, would have also wounded you.

Level Four is the deepest and most important. It could be expressed as: “Thank you for telling me.” It is an opportunity to transform how we behave and change how we interact. It allows us to look at ourselves through the eyes of another person, seeing how they see us, and recognizing how different that might be from how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen.

That level of apology and discovery, while not easy, can be freeing. We can truly apologize and ask forgiveness and mean it because we really do want our lives to have less conflict and confusion. And we want our relationships to be loving, supportive and empathetic.

Having gone through those levels in terms of what we have done to others, we are still left with the other side of the equation: telling someone when they have hurt us.

Sometimes being able to share what someone has said or done that caused you pain feels harder than admitting what we have done and committing to changing. We may think of that ‘small’ thing as not that important compared to ‘serious’ things that people deal with – job loss, health issues, etc. We might even feel embarrassed and petty bringing it up.

If we can let it go, all the better.

But sometimes we can’t. The ‘small’ thing – comments that we take as criticism, a behavior that feels dismissive or insensitive – rankles. We may have decided that those behaviors are ‘just how they are, they’re not going to change.’ That leaves out the possibility for real depth and real change for both of us.

Neither asking forgiveness nor telling someone they have hurt us is easy. Women tend to apologize almost reflexively and sometimes defensively. That makes it harder to really stop to think about something that we really have done or didn’t do that creates distress.

I read somewhere that men tend to feel guilty about things they did, and women tend to feel guilty about things they didn’t do. I am surprised how often that seems to be true for me. But there is also plenty I do and say that miss the mark.

I want to enter this New Year and this new decade with a lighter load and more clarity about how to keep hurts felt or caused from piling up.

My wish for myself and other: May we have a year in which the relationships that matter most to us are clear and loving and we keep our hearts open.