At this time, many Jewish readers are inundated by talk of repentance and atonement. During the period that spans Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur I am truly awe-struck by these concepts and marvel at the ability of human beings to repent and atone for sin. In Jewish thought, repentance and atonement are heavily rooted in the Scriptures but there is another mechanism for remedying wrong – especially as it relates to interpersonal relationships – that emerged in the days of the Talmud and took form in subsequent rabbinic literature. I'm talking about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is one of today's great challenges. I'm not so interested in the macro questions that pertain to forgiveness – Can we ever pardon Nazis? Should New Yorkers be able to consider the candidacy of shamed politicians in the upcoming elections? Rather, I'm fascinated by forgiveness at the micro level as it impacts the way we relate to friends and relatives.
The process can be difficult for both the one who asks forgiveness and the person who grants it. Few of us, it seems, are facile with the building blocks of forgiveness, including apologizing, expressing regret, and letting the other off the hook without diminished self-esteem. Our culture lacks even the language for such fundamental interaction. For instance, what’s the noun that means “a person who grants forgiveness”? And should such a noun reflect the forgiving or the initially being wronged?
Alan Haber, my good friend and former med-school roommate, once directed me to the "Forgiveness Project," maintained by Stanford University. The group has demonstrated that forgiveness is not only attainable but also associated with lowered blood pressure, increased work productivity, diminished stress, and improved physical vitality. There's no shortage of incentive to engage in forgiveness, yet how many of us take advantage of the opportunity?
Families need forgiveness. Often, somewhere during the course of radiotherapy or follow-up with many of my cancer patients, an estranged relative appears unexpectedly. There seem to be plenty of reasons for estrangement. Sometimes folks just have a way of slipping out of our lives. But in many cases, something has come between people. And in many scenarios, a decision has been made not to invest in pursuing reconciliation.
Forgiveness is highly relevant, I think, for those of us participating in this blog. Throughout the year, I’ve advocated that we strive towards self-awareness. I firmly believe that we can change our behavior. Although not always. Perhaps we all have certain traits that we wish to alter but can't. In such circumstances, we have another gift to open. The gift of self-acceptance.
Once we acknowledge our personal foibles, we can forgive ourselves and subsequently, in many situations, forgive others. Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, points out that "…forgiveness involves living with the past but not living in the past." I agree with his premise that we can move on.
As we take stock of who we are during these holidays, we become aware of strengths and weaknesses in ourselves and others. Our friends and family members have their own two-sided ledgers. By identifying even a few redeeming traits within ourselves and others, we may be able to re-orient our focus. That may require overcoming our pride, but the outcome can be more than worth the effort.
I have found the act of forgiveness to be one of the most emotionally compelling of all human experiences. Highly recommended, particularly for this holiday season.
Until next Monday, Shalom.
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