On Yom Kippur, some thoughts about the true meaning of atonement, outside of religious dogma. It is one of the most human acts to seek forgiveness—from ourselves, as much as from others.
One day a year, the Jewish religion bids its faithful to atone for their sins — to cleanse their souls of wrongdoings. Pragmatically, for the less religious, it is a day spent in reflection for the person we’ve been over the preceding year, to help guide our actions in the coming one. To avoid distraction, or bodily pleasure, Jews fast, forgoing food from sundown to sundown.
You could call it, not to be disrespectful, a spiritual tune-up.
Underlying this institutional self-cleansing is the notion that to be human is to be flawed; and that, with adequate awareness, intentions and behaviors, we can approach the divine, either directly, as most believe, or through an intermediary, as some religions insist. The Buddhists follow the Eightfold Path. Hindu and Jain sadhus practice asceticism. Christians have the seven sacraments. Muslims follow the five steps of tawbah. And Jews reflect on Yom Kippur. For the last group, it is the single holiest — and most somber — day of the year.
The concept of atonement is — truly — a pan-religious concept. Moreover, myriad forms of atonement, reconciliation and cleansing have been — and continue to be — practiced today, outside of religion. In fact, in the context of a post-industrial world in which we are far removed from our roots, we are seeing these forms of “inner work” replicate and expand, rapidly.
In this sense, you could call atonement a human concept, rather than a religious one. The modern field of psychiatry, varying practices of yoga or meditation, ritual psychedelic therapies in traditional societies and modern ones alike, countless autobiographies and self-help books, institutions such as EST, Esalen and the Landmark Forum, and proselytizers like Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, to name just three — all of these address the underlying condition of human capacity, unrealized. Many of them — if not most, or all — covertly or overtly attempt to connect us with the divine, whether we believe divinity to be a cosmic or an internal state of connectedness and being.
I was raised within the Jewish tradition, as a Reform (aka Liberal or Progressive) Jew; the least religious of the denominations. Moreover, my mother believed in — and practiced — a number of the things I listed in the preceding paragraph. She does, still. So my upbringing, you could say, was self-reflection-centric. Every year from the time I was perhaps five or six, on Yom Kippur, I fasted for 24 hours, and sat in reflection. Later, when my views on religion in general diminished — or vanished — I continued to fast on Yom Kippur, not for a self-seeking place in heaven, but rather because I believed in the notion of self-betterment, for its own merits.
I still do.
In fact, meditation practice, experimentation with psychedelics, targeted reading, contemplative writing and a decades-long war against my baser character traits, however remedial or acceptable my conduct has become with regard to any given one, are all outgrowths of that philosophy, and commitment.
I remain an imperfect human, riddled with flaws.
At the same time, because we each have a different genetic, parental, social, economic and psychological starting point and set of experiences, I believe the only fair way to measure our progress is against ourselves, not others. Said another way, our trajectory is what matters, as in, “Am I doing better today than I did yesterday,” in any given internal or interpersonal act, or sphere.
As long as the answer is yes, we are on the right path.
That’s because we must forgive ourselves while we atone. We must, because how we’ve treated ourselves is a reflection of our inner states. It is not enough to ponder who else we may have hurt during the year, and how to seek forgiveness for that. Healing, in the form of atonement or cleansing, must be aimed inward before it can be aimed outward. Outward transgressions are simply manifestations of internal states that must be dealt with, if they are to lose their potency, and diminish our harmful outbursts.
I know I’ve hurt many people in life, and that I continue to. Sometimes, I am unaware that I have. We cannot know everyone intimately enough to know what it is that triggers them, or even that we have. What I’ve learned is that everyone is different. Things that deeply offend some people wouldn’t register with others. Such is the complexity of life, and context. The cities, cultures and age in which we live, our upbringing, interactions and self-image, and our personal sensitivities — the context of our lives — all conspire to collectively shape how we view, and react to, others’ words or actions.
The Path to Reconciliation
As such, the best I think we can do is to appeal to one another’s common humanity, in several ways. First, we can engage in open and honest dialogue, letting others know when they have hurt us, because that is the best — only? — way I know of to lead to better outcomes tomorrow. If we don’t share how others made us feel, we cannot expect them to read our minds, or change their behaviors. Doing so isn’t always easy, but if our goal is reconciliation — atonement — it must be done. If our goal is simply punishment, retribution or self-removal, then these thoughts are not for you. Second, when others do share these things with us, we can listen deeply, without mounting a defense or softening the blow, in service of truly hearing them, and letting their words sink in. No one is falsely hurt; hurt can be no more false than happiness. When we let others’ words and emotions in, no matter how tough it may be to hear criticism of our own actions, we have an opportunity not only to atone, but to become more mindful of what it is that we did, so as not to repeat the behavior in the future. Third, we can ask forgiveness, for being a flawed human — especially if we unintentionally aggrieved others. With that said, not everyone can forgive easily. Like asking for forgiveness, giving it is a skill we must practice. Whether or not someone is given to working differences out and moving on without prejudice is a direct reflection of that person’s own maturity, or growth. We cannot be responsible for others — only ourselves. In this spirit, the best path to atonement is the one we take together, because without doing so, the aggressor may adequately atone, but the relationship will die regardless.
It Takes Two
Healing is an individual journey, but with the right mindset between parties to an atonable transgression, reparation is possible; and the chief potential outcome of two parties, reconciled, is a deeper relationship, in which we emerge able to see and understand one another better.
I am sorry for how my own flaws have — and continue to — hurt others. Hopefully, it is happening less, over time. I believe it is. Still, there is a long road ahead. When we skate on the surface of relationships, remaining in the realm of decorum and politeness, it is far easier not to transgress. For our actions to hurt others, we have to hit a nerve, below the surface, which means doffing politeness for something less sanitized. Within that paradigm of impolite (or impolitic) interaction, transgression cannot occur without a receiving party who feels wronged at the hand of our actions. This is true even if our behavior is identical toward two people, only one of whom takes offense. That’s because offense — or transgression, sin, or whatever you’d call it — is extremely personal. It is non-transferrable to others, because it is the result of an action and a reaction. To take an extreme example, you cannot offend the Dalai Lama, because he is unoffendable. Thus, I’m sure he would tell you, all that matters is self-forgiveness, for the things about which we cannot yet control, and which therefore continue to trip us up.
In this regard, there are two forms of atonement: internal, and external.
Internal and External Atonement
Internal atonement is work done on the self, irrespective of others’ feelings or states. Self-love, self-forgiveness and self-betterment are all expeditions of the soul — states that, when attained, allow one to feel at peace, inside. We get there by healing the damage that has befallen us at others’ hands, as at our own. To heal that damage, we need to be able to see ourselves and our actions clearly. To see ourselves clearly, we need to work on this form of awareness. To work on this form of awareness, we need to engage in practices that have evolved alongside us — many of which have been developed over millennia.
Internal atonement is a lifelong campaign. Until we reach nirvana, or samadhi, or transcendence, or godliness, or ego death, there is more to do. What matters, again, is our personal trajectory.
External atonement is work done in partnership with others, which focuses on their feelings or states, to repair damage done. Again, this cannot happen without two willing parties. The more vested each is in a good outcome, the better it will be. If one is unwilling to forgive a transgressor, the only work that can be done is internal, by the party willing to engage in it. Thus external atonement is a group activity.
Not everyone is willing to subject themselves — but which I mean, invest of themselves — in the other party, or the relationship. Pragmatically in life, many of us feel hurt, and simply move on. That cheats both parties out of reconciliation, and equally cheats both parties of healing work that can be done. Not to minimize the importance of owning our own actions in when we hurt someone else, and cause them pain, the fact is that someone cannot be offended if they are whole. Thus a transgression, you could say, is an act that reveals underlying pain on both sides. Once revealed, a doorway to healing opens up, not just for the sinner, but for the object of the sin — the aggrieved party.
Ages ago, belying his young age, my brother wrote a note to our mother. In it, he pledged, “I promise to do my best to continue pushing each and every one of your buttons, in the spirit of your personal growth.”
Our mother loved it. What my brother Jordan meant, using my own words, was, ‘I cannot offend you if you do not allow yourself to be offended. If you are offended, it is not because of me, but because of something inside of you. If you listen carefully enough to your own reaction, you can find the source of your own pain. Once you find that pain, you now know what to work on. Once you have worked on healing it enough, it will no longer pain you. Then, I will be unable to offend you.’
Or something like that.
I Am Truly Sorry
So, on this Yom Kippur, I ask forgiveness for my sins, from anyone reading this whom I have hurt. There are many. I promise that I will continue to work on myself in order to offend or transgress less, by becoming more aware of the triggers and instances that set my transgressions in motion; by working diligently to reduce the frequency of those occurrences, until they no longer happen, by continuing the heavy internal lift of healing myself, so I can be a better friend, partner, co-worker and family member. I also ask forgiveness from those who will not be reading these words. Luckily, I already know who many of you are. For those I’ve hurt and don’t yet know that I have, please know that if you choose one day to tell me, I will listen. That’s because my goal is not — nor has it ever been — to hurt you, or anyone; and while I continue to in spite of this, I plan to continue down the path that my brother elucidated so simply, and wisely, those many years ago.
In death, as in life, he is still teaching me.
Thank you, Jordan.
On Yom Kippur, “May you be sealed in the Book of Life,” wherever you are.