When sorry seems to be hardest word

by | Sep 28, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Don’t be surprised if a Jewish friend or acquaintance comes up to you this week and, out of the blue, asks for forgiveness.

It is a lesser-known but integral part of the Jewish high holidays, going on right now, in which people atone for their sins not only with God, but with one another. They must show remorse to everyone in their circle. Not just the people they know they wronged. Everyone.

“Will you forgive me if I’ve done or said anything this year that has hurt you?” That’s how it’s supposed to go. Every friend. Every neighbor. Every colleague.

Can you imagine saying “I’m sorry” to everyone you encountered this past year? Even if you’re not sure you did anything? Your boss? Your insurance agent? Your mailman? It’s a heavy task. But it got me thinking about apologies in America, particularly since there have been so many of them lately.

In sports alone, in the last few weeks, Ray Rice apologized, his bosses apologized and the NFL commissioner apologized. Then Adrian Peterson apologized, his bosses apologized and the NFL commissioner apologized again.

Meanwhile, the police chief in Ferguson, Mo., apologized to the family of Michael Brown. Vice President Joe Biden apologized for saying “Shylocks.” A Fox News host apologized for labeling a female fighter pilot as “boobs on the ground.”

Even Apple said sorry – for a software glitch.

“We apologize for the great inconvenience experienced by users,” a spokesperson said.

The main types of apologies

These, of course, were all public apologies. But then, so much of life is lived in the public these days. And in this public arena, Americans not only expect apologies, we evaluate them for sincerity. People were OK with Jonah Hill apologizing for a homophobic slur or Reese Witherspoon apologizing for mouthing off to the police, because, to us, they looked and sounded sincere.

We were less accepting of apologies from Rice, or Roger Goodell, or the Ferguson mayor or Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. It seems that public apologies fall into one of several predictable models:

1) “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry you were offended.” (Never good. It’s like saying “I feel bad that you are such an overly sensitive idiot.”)

2) “I take full responsibilities for my actions.” (This is kind of stating the obvious, since everyone is responsible for their actions, but few ever say it until they’re caught.)

3) “I apologize for letting down my teammates, my fans and, mostly, my family.” (Meaning you apologize to all the people you know are going to forgive you.)

I think this Jewish tradition offers a better approach. A person must ask another person for forgiveness in front of him or her (not over Twitter). And the request has to be for anything you know you did, and anything you did not. This covers a great deal of ground. It also gives the offended party a chance to say, “Well, now that you mention it, your comment at last year’s company picnic really bothered me…”

It brings issues into the air and, in a one-to-one setting, forces them to be settled with a sincere “I’m sorry” and a sincere “I forgive you.” No purer salve exists for our mistakes.

The secret for better living

But what if the person doesn’t want to forgive you? Then you are supposed to ask again in front of three friends. If the person still refuses, three more friends. If the person still refuses, three more. If that doesn’t do it, then you stop. And the onus for atonement is now on the hard-hearted person who refuses to forgive, which can be an offense in itself.

I know there are some hurts that people cannot let go. And we can debate the sincerity of the apologizer forever.

But forget the tangential issues and think about the basic structure of this repentance model: Once a year, address all the folks you know, and say, “If I’ve done anything to hurt you, please forgive me.” Do you realize how far that might go to calming down our hair-trigger society? How preemptive it might be to our quickly bruised egos?

I like the idea. I think the more you do it, the easier saying you’re sorry becomes. So for those of you who read this column regularly – or those just dropping by – let me say, if anything I’ve written in the last 12 months has hurt or offended you, please forgive me. I’ll endeavor to be more sensitive.

There. That wasn’t so hard. Perhaps if more of us tried it, we wouldn’t be so angry all the time.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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