Oy Vey! The High Holy Days! (Thoughts on Offering Apologies)

The scriptures suggest that since the beginning of time human beings have been bad at offering apologies. The book of Genesis tells us that when God approached Adam in the Garden of Eden and asked him the simple question, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam looked God right in the eyes and replied, “The woman YOU put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Notice how he was not only shifting the blame to Eve but to God. That takes some chutzpah. When God asked Eve the same question, Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” For the record, the serpent doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before God dispenses punishment. Snakes have suffered from bad PR issues ever since. We do not know if the snake would have apologized BUT we do know that neither Adam or Eve took responsibility for their own actions or offered apologies for their behavior and human beings have been following their example ever since. 

Human beings are not very good at giving apologies. So much so that there is an actual blog called Sorry Watch dedicated to tracking the bad apologies given by politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, corporations and others in the public eye. Indeed, in our day and age many high profile people and businesses hire publicists to write their apologies for them. 

Professionally written apologies are often an exercise in public relations, the goal is to repair the image of the offender not address the concerns of those who have experienced the offense.Of course, suffice it to say, spiritually speaking, a good apology is not something we can ever delegate to someone else. We have to do it ourselves. 

This evening at sunset is the beginning of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. This is a time traditionally set aside for offering apologies and making amends. In our day and age offering an apology is a countercultural thing to do. Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg has written a book called On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. In her book she suggests that offering an apology “goes against many of our cultural and often individual instincts – to shift blame, to minimize the problem, to focus on our excellent and pure intentions, to put off an uncomfortable conversation to another day.” She notes that apologies are especially countercultural when litigation might result. Many legal strategies designed to reduce liabilities are based on the advice to never apologize for anything but always, “Deny and defend” and sometimes “Turn the tables and attack.” So offering an apology means swimming against the current of a system built around the idea that we should never have to say, “I’m sorry.” 

The rabbi mentions how Alexander de Tocqueville wrote in his 1835 book Democracy in America that Americans tend to be very individualistic. He wrote Americans act like they, “owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form a habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their hands.” With this mindset, if we do not owe anything to anybody then we certainly do not owe anyone an apology. 

Now I am sure when the good rabbi and the book of Genesis suggest human beings have a hard time apologizing they mean for present company to be excluded.  I am sure none of us in this room has ever tried to shift the blame. I’m sure none of us have ever tried to minimize a problem or deflect from the issues by focusing on our noble intentions. I am sure not a single one of us has ever hunkered down into the “deny and defend” posture. Even so,  we might benefit from reflecting on how to give a good apology anyway. If we cannot use this information for ourselves we can at least learn more so that we will be able to teach others. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg tells us that a good apology includes the following ingredients. We need to apologize. We need to own the pain we’ve caused. We need to take steps to change our behavior so something similar won’t happen again. We need to make amends. And finally we need to never do it again. 

Our goal should not be to make ourselves feel better by apologizing. Our goal should be to make the other person feel better because we have apologized. Rabbi Kushner was right, “forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves” however, offering an apology is something we do for others. The mantra for a good apology is always, “This is not about me.” 

An apology is a victim centered process. Whether or not we intended to cause harm is irrelevant. We often hurt people without intending to. Apologizing isn’t about being right or wrong. Apologizing isn’t about being good or evil.  Apologizing  is about valuing our relationship to someone else more than we value our own self image or ego. In other words, a good apology is the opposite of narcissism. 

For this reason offering a good apology is difficult. It involves looking at a situation from another person’s perspective. It requires empathy. It requires a willingness to consider another point of view. It requires us to “let go of our ego” and focus on another person’s needs and feelings. 

Earlier, I mentioned the blog Sorry Watch that tracks bad apologies. Often these are the apologies of the rich and famous, the wealthy and the powerful. However, some irreverent people have created a game that allows you to apply the same principles closer to home. It is called Bad Apology Bingo. On each square there is an example of bad apology practice and if you experience five in a row you can call out Bingo. Here are some examples of bad apologies. 

  1. An apology that begins with the words, “I am sorry but…” The early introduction of the qualifier “but” shifts the focus away from our apology and toward some form of self-justification for our actions. An apology that begins with, “I am sorry but..” will almost always be translated as “I am sorry but not really.” The words, “I am sorry but…” sound like making excuses not making amends. 
  2. An apology that begins with the words, “I am sorry if..” Once again, the early introduction of a qualifier shifts the focus away from our apology. This particular beginning often shifts the focus to the other person as in, “I am sorry if you were offended.” “I am sorry if you took my actions the wrong way.” “I am sorry if you felt hurt by what I did.” The shift is away from our apology for our actions and toward focusing on someone else’s interpretation of our actions as in the sentence, “I am sorry if you were hurt when I beat you up and stole your wallet.” The warning sign here is the words “if you.” In other words when we apologize we must be very careful not to say “if you.” 
  3. An apology often given by politicians and small children is “Mistakes were made” which always leads many of us to wonder – who made them? Did these mistakes make themselves or was anybody in particular responsible for them? Another dodge is to say something like, “What happened was regrettable” without specifying exactly what happened or who regrets it. A good apology isn’t vague. It names exactly what happened and names who was responsible for it happening. 
  4. If we begin our apology with words like, “I feel awful about what I did. I am ashamed of my behavior. I am mortified by actions. I am embarrassed that I did this,” If we do this then we are still focusing on ourselves. We are focusing on how our actions make us feel instead of focusing on how our actions made another person feel. When a famous politician offered an apology along these lines the commentator on Sorry Watch wrote underneath the “apology” this succinct commentary in all caps, ME ME ME ME ME ME…I AM SUFFERING. MEEEEEEEEE.
  5. An apology that begins with “I was so drunk” or “I was not in my right mind” or “I was oblivious” also keeps the focus on “me” rather than the other person. An apology is about taking responsibility for our actions. If we are in the habit of drinking irresponsibly or using other substances that prevent us from being in our “right mind” then we need to own it and own the damage that our inebriated actions have on the other people in our lives (rather than use it to try and get a free pass.) The phrase “I was oblivious..” is more subtle, and certainly we all hurt people without intending it. However, it is my observation that the phrase, “I was oblivious…” is the first line of defense for many narcissists. It implies that it is another person’s responsibility to teach basic empathy to the narcissist, a way to shift focus away from ourselves and shift blame to the other person. 
  6. If we begin our apology by talking about the virtues of forgiveness. This is another way to shift the focus away from our apology and our effort to make amends and move the focus toward someone else’s obligation to forgive us. So always remember, “Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. An apology is something we do for others.” We must focus on our work – the apology – and not someone else’s work – the forgiveness. 
  7. If we begin our apology by saying something like, “I understand your point of view but right now America needs unity…” or “our family needs unity…” or “our organization needs unity.” Beginning an apology with an appeal to unity is like trying to begin a journey at the desired destination.  It is an effort to skip over the hard work that leads to unity. 
  8. If we apologize with our words but not our body language then we are not really offering a sincere apology. If we apologize while rolling our eyes or gritting our teeth or biting our tongue then we are not offering a good apology. When we apologize our spoken language and our body language should be in alignment. 
  9. Finally, when we apologize if  we say, “The woman YOU put here with me made me do it” or “the serpent made me do it” or “someone else made me do it.” Even though one of the oldest stories in one of the oldest books reminds us that this is not a good idea, human beings still have a tendency to do it anyhow. 

As Randy Pausch said in The Last Lecture, “A good apology is like an antibiotic. A bad apology is like rubbing salt in a wound.” This is why it is so important for all of us to learn how to offer a good apology. None of us want to be guilty of rubbing salt in the wound. Of course, on the other hand, if we’ve been on the receiving end of at least five bad apologies in a row then we get BINGO. So that’s something. 

In compiling this list of bad apologies from many different sources I have to say I had the very unpleasant realization that I have not only been on the receiving end of bad apologies. I’ve been on the giving end. However, as Rabbi Ruttenberg reminds us, offering an apology is not meant to be self-flagellation. After all, self-flagellation is still about ME ME ME. Self flagellation is about my sins, my failings, my feelings whereas the goal of an apology is to prioritize another person. Indeed, in rabbinic tradition, if an apology might do more harm than good we should refrain from apologizing. If apologizing makes us feel good and makes the other person feel bad we shouldn’t do it. A good apology is about doing something good for someone else, prioritizing another human being. 

So let’s take a moment this morning to think about someone other than ourselves, to reflect on how our actions have impacted other people, to prioritize someone else even if it is counter cultural to do so. We are in the midst of the High Holy Days, a time for making amends. So let’s remember what the good rabbi taught us. 

Rabbi Ruttenberg tells us that a good apology includes the following ingredients. We need to apologize. We need to own the pain we’ve caused. We need to take steps to change our behavior so something similar won’t happen again. We need to make amends. And finally we need to never do it again. 

So in conclusion, I want to tell you about something that happened this week. I was up in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cades Cove and there was a ranger who had set up a booth to educate people about the snakes that are common in our area. The ranger was trying to counter the irrational fear many people have toward snakes, an irrational prejudice that is very likely based on a certain interpretation of the book of Genesis, an interpretation that has given snakes a lot of bad PR. The ranger had a sign on a bucket that seemed to be an attempt to address the prejudicial statement, “The only good snake is a dead snake” by offering an alternate teaching, “The only good human being is an educated human being.” And so I hope that all of us leave church today as better educated human beings, better educated on how to offer an apology. I hope we all leave feeling better educated on how to be kinder to snakes and to each other. So may it be. 

(This sermon was given by Rev. Chris Buice on Sunday, September 18, 2022, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church)