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Jewish Journal

How to Ask for Forgiveness

by Susan Esther Barnes

September 4, 2013 | 1:00 am

Graphic from Wikimedia/DannyChan

One of the things I like most about the High Holy Days is it is a time to seek and to grant forgiveness. We are told that, during this time, God grants forgiveness for sins against God, but that for sins of one person against another, God does not grant forgiveness until we have made peace with one another.

It’s such a wonderful reminder that we must seek out forgiveness from those we have wronged, and that we should also grant forgiveness to those who apologize sincerely to us (or even, perhaps, to those who do not apologize).

The trouble is, I’ve heard a lot of very bad apologies over the years. Celebrities, in particular, seem to be quite skilled at issuing statements that masquerade as apologies, but really aren’t.

Below are a couple of this year’s examples, from Parade.com:

After calling Sandra Fluke a prostitute and a slut simply because she takes birth control pills, Rush Limbaugh said, “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”

What’s wrong with this apology? First, he is not apologizing for saying disparaging things about Sandra Fluke. Rather, he is only apologizing for his “choice of words,” implying that it would have been perfectly okay for him to us different words to deliver a similar, demeaning message about her.  Further, he says it was an “attempt to be humorous,” when anyone with any sense can tell you it isn’t humorous to verbally attack a person you don’t know.

At the end, he apologizes only for his “word choices,” never once saying anything like, “It was wrong of me to attack you in a public forum,” or, “I should never have assumed that I could discern anything about a person’s moral character based on their legal use of any prescription medication.”

Similarly, Angus T. Jones is quoted as saying, in an attempt at an apology, “I apologize if my remarks reflect me showing indifference to and disrespect of my colleagues and a lack of appreciation of the extraordinary opportunity of which I have been blessed. I never intended that.”

All he’s saying here is he’s sorry he might have been caught “showing indifference and disrespect” and a “lack of appreciation.” Any apology that contains the word “if” in it implies that the person thinks it’s likely they did nothing wrong – he doesn’t even seem to be sure whether or not the thing he’s theoretically apologizing for ever happened. And if it did, he claims he didn’t mean it.

It would have been better if he said something more like, “I’m sorry I said negative things about the show. It was wrong, and I apologize.” Regarding his “lack of appreciation,” he should have remained silent. It’s a red herring. What matters is he said negative things which he should not have said.

Below are some tips we can all follow in crafting a sincere apology:

Don’t imply anyone but you (the person apologizing) might be at fault. For example, don’t say, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” The use of the passive voice implies the other person might be at fault for their own hurt feelings. Similarly, don’t say, “I’m sorry you took it that way,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or anything else that avoids your own personal responsibility for what you said or did.

Simpler is often better. For instance, try, “I’m sorry I…” whatever it is you did. Then stop talking. For instance, “I’m sorry I said that to you,” or “I’m sorry I forgot today was our anniversary,” or even, “I’m so sorry I hurt you.”

The more you embellish, the more likely you’re going to say something to try to duck the blame. Remember, a real apology is all about taking responsibility for what happened. Trying to put the blame on someone else, or trying to explain the extenuating circumstances, or claiming you were just joking is not going to help. Just suck it up, apologize for what you said or did, and move on.

And remember, if you try three times to make a sincere apology to a person, and they still won’t forgive you, then you have done your part. God will forgive you even if the other person won’t. Because, as long as we have sincerely returned to the path of doing what is right, none of us should have to live in guilt.

Shana tova.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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