Careful Forgiveness: Atoning with Life in the New Year

“Let us forget with generosity those who cannot love us.” Pablo Neruda

Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement between humanity and the divine. Jewish tradition dictates that atonement between humans is a precursor to atoning and aligning oneself with God. Therefore, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of atonement between people. These days are devoted to apologies and forgiveness. Jews are asked by tradition to approach those whom they offended or alienated, acknowledge wrongdoing, and ask forgiveness.

When I was a teenager, driven by a self-lacerating perfectionism and the conviction that anything that went wrong in my life was all my fault, I loved these days of atonement. In my young mind, they seemed a divinely sanctioned opportunity to cosmologize something I was already very good at, which was to beat up on myself for not being perfect. It was exactly what I did all the time, so to have an actual liturgy with which I could literally beat my breast and read lists of all the ways in which I messed up was actually quite thrilling for me.

My approach has changed as I grow up and understand more about the high holidays. Now in my late thirties, I take them more as an opportunity for reflection, of assessing my own spiritual and existential fitness, of assessing whether I’d like to make any changes, of honing awareness of my natural defects. These high holidays of 5777, I’m not busy lacerating my imperfections, but I am thinking about how to atone with my own path and purpose, and the ways in which I succeed and fail at upholding my values and ideals.

This Yom Kippur, I’m also thinking about reconnecting with the true self I denied for so long under the guise of perfectionism and people-pleasing. Over the decades I slowly released pressures that had incurred such desperate perfectionism in the first place. Learning to pray and develop a relationship with God, to sit with myself and my imperfections, and stop abusing myself with perfectionism or danger— this has all been a process of unlocking. Embarking upon seminary, then a doctoral program, and meeting and marrying my wonderful husband have all contributed to a spirit-settling that have brought me closer to something that feels like truth inside myself. Since Yom Kippur is known as the day of atonement, this year I think of it as atoning with the younger spirit of my true self who was so denied and punished.

This has all happened in tandem with my story of learning NOT to apologize or forgive so much during the high holidays—or, in other words, learning to be more selective and atone with that which is truly life-giving.                     

In the past I really relished the opportunity to go to someone and tell them what an awful piece of shinola I was. I used the holiday as an excuse to continue to lower and debase myself to myself and others. As I’ve become more aligned with myself and less sure that flogging myself in front of others—especially to people who haven’t treated me very well—was really the right thing to do, the holiday’s pressure to apologize has become more complicated.

This year—bruised from yet another round of psyche-mangling by someone I was starting to realize had never treated me with much respect, or reflected my growing sense of myself as someone who is okay, good, worthy of love and dignity—I began to wonder whether I should start the umpteenth round of apologizing and trying to achieve understanding and harmony with this person (it never, ever worked, but I always tried). In the past, I would have gone to them and explained how awful I was as a way of calibrating our dysfunctional power dynamic, whereby things only felt comfortable if I was the bad guy and the other guy was perfect.

But my gut told me not to rush into this high-holidays apology.

I obeyed.

I talked to my rabbi and narrated the long and complicated history of this destructive relationship which had kept me imprisoned in a very old story about myself. The Rabbi helped me turn around my impulse to apologize. He said, “This year I think you can apologize to yourself, for being a dumping ground for so long.” And that sounded right to me and that’s what I’m doing. It feels daring and different. But not wrong.

In fact, it feels remarkably right.

This year, my necessary atonement is with the parts of myself that were denied and abused in the service of supporting disordered, controlling behavior. Atoning with myself has included the scary step of feeling my anger at having been denied, defamed and debased for so long—and facing the reality that I had participated in my own oppression. Letting myself feel my anger has allowed me to retrace my steps with this person and see how grossly asymmetrical and full of scapegoating our relationship had been for decades. It helps me become clearer and clearer about the choice to release this person out of my life, into the wild, and to focus instead on more life-giving people and practices.

When it comes to apologies and forgiveness, it can be deceptively tempting for perfectionists or people in abusive relationships to use them to keep themselves down or to buy into narratives of causing all the problems in a relationship. It’s a very tricky topic, since most religions tout compassion and forgiveness in a monolithic way. But this can obscure the shadow sides of compassion and forgiveness. The rhetoric of compassion and forgiveness can be engaged to keep a person enslaved in a dysfunctional cycle.  Acts of apology and forgiveness must be wielded with wisdom and they must serve the process of true liberation. If true and worthwhile, apologies and forgiveness help both parties atone with divine creative sources of truth and freedom within the human spirit.

Apologies, forgiveness and compassion require limits and realism. If we compassionately over-identify with our oppressor, our compassion can give them permission to continue abusing us. Compassion’s shadow side idealizes the potential for love to always heal—or it can feed darkly off of self-deprecation when we strive to understand and thusly affirm evildoers. Compassion can rationalize the wrongdoings of people who have no capacity for empathy or transformation. If an abused party is trying to forgive and be compassionate, destructive power can remain monodirectional and dysfunctional. We can remain trapped in abuse if we continue to forgive, accept, and relate. So, what are the boundaries between compassion and complicity, between compassion and self-pity? How do we recognize when compassion and forgiveness threatens our dignity? How do we keep atonement linked to mutual thriving and freedom?

Martin Luther King, Jr. argued in the context of the Civil Rights Movement that the abuser must be loved in order for him to stop abusing. But outside the context of a social movement, and in contests of interpersonal affairs, loving an oppressor is the job of someone other than the abused. The abused must find the strength to break from her idealistic inclinations to heal the relationship with her love, and seek out healing elsewhere. She must ultimately harness her atoning impulses and apply it to her own life. She must take back her love and turn it toward other life-giving sources of love so it can be reflected and magnified. She has to undertake the process of atonement first and foremost with herself. This is the precursor, if not the essence, of atoning with the divine.

Perhaps this is a very strange holiday message for my fellow Jewish readers out there: do not forgive or seek atonement impulsively this year. Strive to be careful in your forgiveness, full of care and clarity. Most human stories are complicated and ambiguous, and chances are that your atonement story is too. Sometimes the most difficult, dysfunctional people in our lives do things out of the most pure and loving impulses. Sometimes you did indeed mess up and you have some missteps to acknowledge and recover from. But the ambiguity of all human relations, and therefore of their atonement, still stands. It is not simple, and if we repress ourselves into thinking it is, that we can fix something that is deeply broken if only we were better, we do ourselves a disservice. We objectify ourselves into being perfect victims, or perfect criminals, and erase the nuances of the relationship.

Yes, every atonement is complicated. But if it is too complicated, and if you’ve had to think about it for many years, and if you’ve apologized and forgiven again and again and nothing has changed, if your apology requires you to betray yourself or inaccurately characterize yourself as the wrongdoer or the bad one: beware. Do not rush into a high-holidays apology.

Be careful in your forgiveness and in your apologies.

In this season of atonement with the source of life, I believe that we must choose life: to center ourselves in that which is life-giving, to become one with that which is affirming to our souls. That also means keeping distance from that which is…not.

My refusal to seek atonement with a person who has provided toxicity and confusion in my life is really a process of atonement with myself. It is done in service of my atonement with divinity and transcendence. I’m working through the guilt and ambiguity that goes with my choice, and the grief and ambivalence that goes with acknowledging that the toxicity was often mutual, and even that this person often acted out of admirable intentions. But the bottom line was not life-giving.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) contains a stirring call: you shall love yourself and uplift yourself just as high as you love others. No more, and no less. All the love and tenderness you exert for others–you shall exert it for yourself too

This year, I say l’chaim.

In 5777 I board a life raft and sail into more tranquil waters, toward atonement with truth and clarity, toward sources of transcendence that embrace me with nourishing love. Cheers to those of us who did not apologize or forgive this year, in service of reconnecting with wholeness and dignity. Cheers to those of us who have been careful in their forgiveness. May we be gentle and firm, fierce and peaceful, in these difficult and clear at-one-ments.

G‘mar chatimah tovah: May you inscribe yourself in the book of life.


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2 thoughts on “Careful Forgiveness: Atoning with Life in the New Year

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing your story and about the significance of the Jewish High Holidays. As a Muslim, forgiveness and compassion are always touted. Perhaps because of my perfectionism as well, I’ve used this maxim to self-deprecate and self-debase myself. Apologizing for every little thing lessens the impact of the apology and in time, the process of seeking forgiveness becomes merely a ritual of words without any heart or spirit. I think the idea of forgiving yourself is so important, yet underappreciated. I’m starting to see that I cannot even think of healing or helping others if I don’t first work on healing and helping myself. It’s not selfish – I have to remind myself of that constantly. It is, what I believe, what is required by us as believers in God.

  2. I loved your discussion of the shadow side of compassion. It is something not often discussed in religious or human service circles. You are right, at certain times it is imperative to consider the line between compassion and complicity. Often, our shared faiths compel us to call one another higher, but in what instances may this be no longer fruitful? Leviticus 19: 18 offers help, when we are no longer loving ourselves. Often when I hear or read this particular text, it is a call to love others, rarely is it a reminder to love ourselves in the breath. May we all attend to forgiveness with care and carefulness.

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