The Big One: Atonement, Apology, Forgiveness

When we were kids, every year about this time, a little old man would show up early in the morning at our door, all dressed up in a well-worn dark suit and tie, with a yarmulke on his head and a tattered old prayer book under his arm. He would look up sheepishly from under his bushy brows and mutter with a smile, “Is this the Big One?” Our dad called him “Old Man Horowitz,” or sometimes “Horrible Horowitz.” He was coming to catch a ride to temple for the Yom Kippur service if he had the right day, which he often did not. 

Yom Kippur is one of the “high holidays,” the most important days of the Jewish year: a day of fasting where the service is all day long. Once he got his formal career, our dad was a cantor, and he rather disdained what he called the “once-a-year crowd,” which were the congregants who only showed up on the high holidays and were not seen or heard from the rest of the year. He preferred to sing and have the refrains to his calls be from a full sanctuary. (I grew up to be even “worse” than the once-a-year crowd, and I really don’t go at all.)

However, some things about Yom Kippur do appeal to me. It is a day of reflection, a day of taking stock or accounting of who I have been through the year, and what I may have done or not done. I generally do a lot of that anyway throughout the year, a conscious review of all aspects of myself. But I respect and appreciate assigning specific days of the year for that essential practice.

Moral injury is a relatively recently identified category of trauma that involves the experience of committing acts or failing to act in ways that run counter to one’s own value or belief system, usually outside of one’s control.

Atonement

Admittedly, to me, Yom Kippur can have a moralistic tone. Also known as Day of Atonement, there is even a prayer with rhythmic breast-beating as misdeeds are recounted (which always oddly secretly evoked an image of Tarzan. But no disrespect intended!) I am deeply committed to evaluating, owning, and repairing the damage I propagate, and a systematic and “fearless” assessment, as we say in AA, is all good. It truly is the opposite of neglect: being intentional, self-aware, responsible, and open-eyed about my impact, especially in relation to other people. How much trauma, not only neglect trauma but all kinds of trauma, interpersonal or not, could be preempted, forestalled, or intervened upon in time, were this the practice of our species?  

From a moral injury standpoint, such mindfulness offers a space for continued processing. Moral injury is a relatively recently identified category of trauma that involves the experience of committing acts or failing to act in ways that run counter to one’s own value or belief system, usually outside of one’s control. It is the scenario of having no choice or being obligated by authority or circumstance and then left with regret, guilt, rage, grief – all of the above about one’s behavior. Residual feelings may be agonizing to try and resolve. 

I once had a client who, when she was 16 and newly driving, had had a fatal car accident in which her best friend was the passenger and was killed. My client, now in her forties, had had to live with the memory and the tragedy all those years. I know I have memories, perhaps that do not involve a literal death, that haunt and linger. To designate special time for continuing the process of acknowledgment and remorse, even ultimately self-forgiveness is a comfort. I do agree that stock-taking is always good.

Apology

An apology is a profoundly powerful interaction and deeply important to me. Most of us have rarely heard a truly heartfelt and healing apology from anyone who has hurt us, or hurt us the most. There are also many misconceptions surrounding it as if an apology is some sort of admission that “it is all my ‘fault’” or that it connotes some sort of defeat. Such beliefs often make for stinginess or with-holding of apologies, as if my owning my part will mean you don’t own yours – a sadly transactional way of viewing repair!

Perhaps apologizing reveals the unbearable admission that I have made a “mistake” or done something “wrong,” which may seem on the order of life-threatening. For many survivors of trauma and neglect, perfectionism may be on the order of survival, so making a mistake and just saying “I’m sorry” may feel almost like dying. Or it may be a quick resort to lip service to get it over with, meaning little if anything. On local public radio, the comedic/sardonic news program Le Show has as a regular feature “Public Apologies of the Week,” showcasing how truly ridiculous and often (perhaps unintentionally) quite hilarious they often are. However, in real-time, with authentic personal hurts, they are no joke at all.   

These topics are massive, and I definitely have a book in me on them. I will make two key points about apology here. Many have heard me say them before. And although there are indeed preferred “apology languages” as per Gary Chapman’s little book The 5 Apology Languages: The Secret to Healthy Relationships, these are the “Esperanto” of apology: 

First, if I say I am sorry, followed by an explanation of why I did what I did, the potential benefit of the apology evaporates. Poof! If I say, “I am sorry I was late. The traffic was so god-awful on the Bridge…” it may be true, but it sounds to the other who has just waited an hour for me and missed an important appointment like excuses, however “true” and unintended that might be. And the “injured” party is eclipsed by the story, which is again, all about me. 

If instead I say, “I am so sorry to have kept you waiting! And you missed your appointment on top of that. I know how disappointing and annoying that would be, especially with how busy you are and how you rushed to be on time yourself.” This will have an empathic tone and probably land with the desired healing result. Even saying first, “The traffic was hellish, “ and then “I am so sorry to have kept you waiting!” keeps the hurt person in the primary emotional spotlight and out of further neglect. How many neglect survivors have waited, forgotten for interminably long times, because “something delayed or distracted” the other?

Secondly, if I say, “I am sorry you got upset!” however well-intentioned, it fails in the essential healing balm of ownership. By not naming what I actually did, you can be left wondering or feeling blamed as emotional or pathological, as if there is something wrong with you. Authentic, humble, (and prompt if possible!) ownership is key. My 2 cents!

For many survivors of trauma and neglect, perfectionism may be on the order of survival, so making a mistake and just saying “I’m sorry” may feel almost like dying.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a big and complex topic. And although I am utterly committed to reparative growth on both the micro and macro level, where trauma and neglect are concerned, many questions can arise. It is true that often perpetrators of the worst harm are, in some ways re-enacting their own unresolved trauma. That certainly does not let them off the hook, but does it somehow open the heart for forgiveness? Well, sometimes, but certainly not always. If a young person who shoots up an innocent bunch of school kids is a child of tragic neglect, that is so sad all the way around. But what does that mean in the way of forgiveness? What do I owe him?

On the one hand, perhaps the most profoundly transformative experience of my life was arriving ultimately at hard-won authentic forgiveness for the person who may have hurt me more than anyone ever. But perhaps the impulse to forgive does not generalize to all sentient beings. Well, not for me. Unfortunately, I cannot whip up the compassion to forgive Derek Chauvin, whose merciless knee vanquished George Floyd in 2020. I am not that “good.” Again, much more to say on all of this.

Attachment researchers have taught us that even among the best of “good enough” caregivers, whose attunement and resonance are at the percentile highest, the percentage of time these attachment stars are in such optimal attunement is 30%! That is right! 30% is as good as it gets. All the rest of life is a dance of rupture and repair, rupture and repair, rupture and repair. I like to think of “repair” as my middle name, so impassioned as I am about it. And yet I know it is not for everyone. A commitment to forgiving when I can is the best I can do, and the humility to also know that the person who benefits the most when I do, is me!

The high holidays also mark the turn of the Jewish year. Another of the traditions that I do like is the apples and honey: dipping apples in honey for a sweet year to come. Shana tova, happy new year! And may this next cycle bring sweetness and ever more healing.

Today’s Song:

My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.

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