What The Wild Things Are

Understandings of Self, Awareness, and Mental Health in an Ever-Changing World

Apologies, Forgiveness, and Serenity: a Day of Atonement

We ask for forgiveness so others can heal, and in doing so, we heal ourselves.

This evening marks the beginning of Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement for the Jewish people – one of the holiest days of the year.  Jews traditionally observe the day with fasting, prayer, and services.  As one of the most significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is often observed even by secular Jews who may not observe other holidays or attend synagogue any other time of year.

During this period, a Jew is instructed to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness.  For wrongs committed against God or oneself, the instruction is to pray, come to terms with it, and petition God for forgiveness.  However, for wrongs committed against other people, Jews are specifically instructed to go directly to the person wronged and to ask for forgiveness in a sincere and heartfelt way.  If this person refuses to forgive you, you are required to try at least two more times to go to the person and sincerely ask for forgiveness.

And what about the person who has been wronged?  Likewise, unless the wrongdoing is extreme or has caused irrevocable damage, the wronged person has a requirement as well: they are considered to be cruel if they do not forgive the wrongdoer.  In other words this day is not just about a requirement to ask for forgiveness, it is also about a requirement to not hold a grudge and to forgive.

Although Yom Kippur is not considered a joyful holiday (typically you would not wish someone a “Happy Yom Kippur” due to its solemn and contemplative nature), the Talmud actually regards it as a day that results in happiness: a real opportunity to come to terms with oneself (and God), and to make peace with people in your life.  When friends, family, and community members take the time to reflect upon how they might have hurt each other, sincerely ask for forgiveness, and find it in their hearts to forgive themselves and others, they find themselves experiencing a deep and real serenity.

The concept of coming to terms with our behavior, asking for forgiveness, and forgiving is not strictly a Jewish concept. It is one that exists in many religious and spiritual practices, 12-Step programs, and as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Some of the basic principles of this practice are:

1.    While thinking about behaviors or actions that we have done and how to improve ourselves is important and constructive, carrying around shame and guilt about them is not.  We need to find a way to come to terms with it and move on; a way to forgive ourselves for the people we were.

2.    There is something crucial for our own emotional health and well-being, in addition to the sanctity of our relationships, about apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Making amends and atonement is a practice that heals ourselves and others.

3.    There is also something crucial about forgiving.  Holding on to anger, hurt, and pain is just as bad for our emotional health as not apologizing. As the saying goes: Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies. It only serves to eat away at the resentful person.

Not all of us have a day and ritual set aside for these activities every year.  But these activities are important for all of us and instrumental in our ability to find inner peace as well as peace between us and those we care about.  

Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist and co-founder of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco.

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