Thursday 28 April 2011

On apology and victimhood

On Yom Kippur, it is traditional to apologise to those whom you may have offended during the past year. As an exercise,  someone  I know decided to apologise to everyone he knew in his congregation. Since he was an active person within the community, this meant apologising to a great number of people.

He found to his dismay that all those he apologised to felt that he had indeed offended them, and acknowledged his apology as their due, rather than dismissing it with a wave of the hand, which is what he had anticipated. He found the experience was so devastating that he had to stop before completing his mission.

At this point I must explain that this man is loved by the congregation. He is a sensitive and caring person.

Despite our efforts to be kind and loving, it seems that we cannot live together without hurting each other. It is like holding a new-born baby - take care of its head - and when meeting another person - take care of their heart. We are so fragile, so very fragile, the slightest touch leaves a mark, a bruise, which we nurse and brood over. We live together, constantly bumping and rubbing up against each other. It is unavoidable.

Thinking about this man's experience, I hypothesize furthermore that it is possible that most people originally had no conscious grievance. His apology might suggest to them that they had missed something, that they had been wronged - and so they obliged by immediately remembering a situation involving him when events might have turned out more favourably, when things turned out to what they view as their disadvantage. Such a situation is easy to find, even, sometimes, with a slight shifting of perspective, easy to manufacture. It is enticing to produce the goods required: the temptation to assume the victim position proved too strong to resist. A victim after all is pure and faultless, one might almost say perfect.

This connection between victimhood and the sense of being an elevated sort of being explains the attractiveness of the situation: by apologising to someone, we offer them the chance to inhabit the realm of the injured innocent, the realm of the angels, while all that is bad and wrong resides within us. They are good and we are bad, they are right and we are wrong, they are the light and we are the darkness.

It would seem that this temptation is to be resisted, for while we may be injured, we are rarely innocent.

Furthermore, when you think about it, cultivating a feeling of aggrievedness creates a world full of reasons to feel aggrieved. One is reminded of the joke where a mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. When he next visits he is wearing one of them and she asks: "And what is wrong with the other one?"

What is wrong? What is wrong! Notice the typical expression - the other one. The fault lies in the other.

Never this one here, it is never us. One is always looking beyond oneself for what is wrong. This is where an apology is the right action: the only wrong we need to be concerned with is the one we have committed ourselves. Apologising to people teaches us how easily they are hurt, where and how we may have gone wrong.

Something wrong can always be found. Take an ordinary experience like drinking coffee in one of Wellington's coffeeshops. The service may be too slow, the coffee too cold, too sweet, too weak, too expensive, the cup too big, too small, unwieldy, the cafe too dirty, too noisy, too full, too empty, we can go on and on, our creativity is immense. We emerge from this practice displeased with our place in the world, disgruntled.

An Orthodox Jew told me that Jewish practice requires one to say on average 100 blessings a day. This is another creative practice: find what is good, what to be grateful for, and learn the fine art of contentment.

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