October 2, 2003
Seeking forgiveness during a time of apology.
I'm 18. I'm flipping through my yearbook, reading over the cursive messages of my friends: "Stay sweet" and "Great sitting next to you in French" and "Have a great summer."
On the next page, there are a few more notes advising me not to change, to remember that night at the beach drinking wine coolers, to "keep in touch."
I have a couple days left of high school, but in my mind I'm already gone. I have no idea when I turn the next page that what's written there will keep me from really leaving for several years.
Across two blank white pages is scrawled, "UR UGLY."
I snap the yearbook shut. I snap it shut with enough force to make a whooshing sound. I wasn't sure -- perhaps because the forensic humiliation team was off-duty that day -- but it looked like each letter had been written by a different person.
I later found out who stole my yearbook and, with his crappy-hearted little buddies, jabbed a ballpoint pen into my paper-thin self-esteem. If you think they owe me an apology, "UR RIGHT."
That was many Yom Kippurs ago. And what do you know? I've never gotten one. While I'm tempted to have you feel sad for that poor, innocent schoolgirl who never got the apology she so richly deserved, I've done worse, way worse.
Well, 'tis the season to be sorry. Or at least to think about what sorry is, to whom we owe an apology, to whom we owe forgiveness and, frankly, what good is any of this repentance anyway?
Moses begged God's forgiveness for 40 days and 40 nights, Kobe Bryant's going on at least that long plus a $4 million sorry ring. We all have our ways of expressing remorse, but what are we buying with our flowers, phone calls and fine jewelry? Maybe the more observant among us are trying to be "inscribed in the book of life," to obey strict talmudic laws, but people like me, we just want to feel okay about ourselves. We'd like our names erased from the Book of Guilt.
And here's where I unearth the "buried lede." I said a big sorry this year and it changed everything. I was dreading it, I was nauseous when I did it, but it finally became obvious that I was carrying around guilt like rocks in my pockets -- my hands were still free but I couldn't quite get comfortable.
I had to do it; I had to call an ex-boyfriend and hope he'd be big about my saying he was ... small. You know what I mean -- down there.
If you're a male reader, or maybe just a member of the human race, you are probably wincing. I still can't believe I did it. I know it's not murder or adultery or stealing or any of the big biblical sins, but it's the most personal kind of attack, a surgical strike designed to go right to a the core of a man's sense of well-being and blow it to smithereens.
No one ends up dead, but it's this kind of cruel remark that erodes your confidence until "UR IN THERAPY."
I could make excuses for why I said it -- we were breaking up, I was devastated and hadn't slept in days, he was so perfect there was no other target but the one below the belt -- but those don't matter. Beyond the fact that it wasn't true, it was a bell you can't unring.
"Even if a man only spoke badly about another man, he must appease and beseech until he is forgiven," said Maimonides, who may not have had this sort of slight in mind, but you never know.
The 12th-century theologian also specified that the only person who can grant forgiveness is the person who was wronged. There was no getting around it, no asking to speak to the supervisor and going right to God. According to Jewish law, I had to repent, had to mean it, had to swing at forgiveness at least three times before giving up.
Years had passed since the day I broke up with that guy, the day I said the bad thing. I talked to him on occasion, his birthday or mine. We made small talk, but never about the "small" talk.
I wondered if he even remembered.
In 12-step programs, there's a powerful concept very similar to the Jewish High Holidays and their focus on deliverance through atonement. In order to stay sober, one has to "become willing to make amends." Because more of the people I know practice the 12 steps than traditional Judaism, I'm more familiar with their amends process. It's methodical, and like Judaism, the focus is not on gaining God's forgiveness but on making it up to the person you harmed.
Both traditions suggest that the only real redemption comes from being faced with the same situation again and doing it right the next time.
From the Babylonian Talmud: "How is one proved to be a true penitent? Said Rabbi Judah: If the opportunity to commit the same sin presents itself on two occasions, and he does not yield to it."
Well, the universe has been kind enough to provide me many an ugly breakup and I knew better than to go back to my original sin. By acting better, I was making what 12-steppers would call "living amends." Still, in the parlance of "recovery," I hadn't "cleaned my side of the street."
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous gives some pointers I found useful, suggesting, "We should be sensible, tactful, considerate and humble without being servile or scraping."
I could do that. I made the call.
After some chitchat, I slowly lowered my sorry. It went something like this: "When we broke up, I said some very cruel, very personal things. I said things that weren't true and for that I'm deeply sorry."
It was as if he'd been sitting by the phone for years just waiting to hear that. He knew exactly what I meant. There was a pause.
"Yes," he said. "That really hurt. I'm glad you called. Thank you."
As guys do when faced with intense emotional situations -- and when living with their new girlfriends who are probably in the next room -- he hustled off the phone right quick. And the deed was done. Or undone.
I'm not being overly dramatic when I tell you I hung up that phone and walked lighter, sat straighter, not weighted down by those rocks. And something unexpected happened. I didn't miss that guy in the same deep-down way I had for so long, because partially I was tethered to him by a past I couldn't put away until I took it out for show and tell and made it right. I guess anything that can keep an addict clean and a people together for thousands of years must have some magic in it.
My guy accepted the apology with grace. But what about the yearbook guy? Could I forgive someone who never repented?
To be honest, the yearbook guy is just one portrait in my Gallery of Grudges, an easy example, because it's far away and time has blurred the anger. It hangs next to "Evil Stepmother in Repose," "Still Life of Guy Breaking Into My Childhood Home" and "Portrait of a Teacher Who Said I'd Never Amount to Anything." What about them?
I took the question to a couple of rabbis.
"There is no obligation to forgive someone who has never apologized. There is a benefit, however," said Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe. "Hatred corrodes the soul, while not usually hurting the hated at all. It ties knots inside of us, which can't really be unraveled by another's apology as much as by our own willingness to let go."
Oh, that old "letting go" thing. So much easier said than done. Have you noticed that spiritual teachers in almost every discipline won't let go of telling us to let go? Dr. Phil practically has it tattooed on his tush.
Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple agreed, saying, "Forgiving relieves us of the burden of bitterness. It can help take the chip off our shoulder and that is always a good thing."
Chips off the shoulder, rocks out of the pockets, I think I get it. Let go and the heavy stuff lightens up. Life gets better. We act better.
Leder hit me with perhaps the most persuasive quote I've heard all year. From Rabbi Shlomo Carlbach: "If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating. But since I have only one soul, I do not want to waste it on hatred."
I should talk to rabbis more often.
As for letting go, that happened with yearbook guy when I put it into perspective. Was it all about me? Was he a second-string sadist coming off the bench to impress his friends? Was he an angry kid with problems of his own? More importantly, was I truly ugly? I was no cover model, but I was holding my own. I can see that now. The question is, what was he holding? And is he still holding it?
This is where Leder dropped some more wisdom on me. He said, if possible, we should let someone know that they've hurt us, giving them the chance for repentance. If they repent, we forgive.
This seems fair. Fair, but at this moment, utterly impossible for me in most cases. Not to mention the fact that there's probably a statute of limitations on petty high school hurt feelings crimes. As for the other grudges, I'll have to think about it. A soul is a terrible thing to waste.
Teresa Strasser will join other Journal Singles columnists at Friday Night Live on Oct. 10 for "Dating Dos and Don'ts" at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Visit Teresa Strasser on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com .