When my son was just a few months old, I held him close and contemplated my wrongs. It was the week after Yom Kippur, a time of weighty personal reflection. Though I did not attend services that year, I privately went through the grim process of honestly and unambiguously considering my injuries to others. He dozed in my lap -- a slumber of satiation and completeness -- and I felt his immeasurable vulnerability. His stark defenselessness prompted me to accept my power to right a past wrong. I crept to the computer. Successfully avoiding creaky floorboards and squeaky infant chew toys, I settled in to write an apology that had long since come due.
Over a decade had elapsed since we'd had any communication, but those 10 years had not passed without deep regret. I can't explain why my remorse felt so insistent on that particular day. Perhaps I was more accepting of my own frailty after having had a difficult pregnancy and labor. Maybe the act of holding my child -- with his bottomless need for my energy and love -- allowed me to concede that holding so tightly to my failures and flaws did nothing positive for him or me. Maybe I had simply grown tired of the burden of the regret, as it pressed on my chest and burrowed into my belly. Or perhaps, at 39, I could finally admit that I had not been especially self-reflective in my 20s. Whatever the reason, I wrote.
My intended succinct, candid e-mail evolved into a bona fide tome. I hit "send" before I surrendered to cowardice and changed my mind. I immediately felt lighter and freer. I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s exquisite and enduring message: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Having shined a light on my -- gasp! -- imperfections and, let's face it, complete humanity, the darkness evaporated. The act of honestly acknowledging the wrong brought peace. I did not ask for absolution; I simply said I was sorry.
We often feel the tug to apologize, but don't give in because of pride or guilt -- or simply because our children have distracted us with demands for a particular kind of macaroni and cheese. We let the moment go, and it is difficult to swim back to that place of revelation. But when we take a stand for authenticity -- and face the possibility of real rejection or unchecked anger -- we declare our willingness to both embrace the world of mortals and rejoice in it. I am astounded by our capacity to forgive and seek forgiveness.
I recently learned a friend's tender secret. He shared with me that many years ago his wife had had an affair with a coworker. His sorrow and anguish had very nearly consumed him. But then, years later, he heard that the man's own wife had died a horrible death to cancer. He sat down and wrote an extraordinarily frank and loving letter of forgiveness. He shared it with me; I was awestruck -- truly spellbound by its raw candor.
What he sent, ultimately, was a letter of love to this man, this adversary whose reckless abandon had brought so much pain. His remarkable, exquisite letter boils down to this: "I spent a long time hating you and wishing ill upon you. My hate blinded me to the joy you clearly brought my wife. I forgive you. I forgive her. I forgive myself." He explained that he'd received absolutely no satisfaction from learning that the man's wife had died a slow, anguished death. He wouldn't wish that pain on anyone -- not even a sworn enemy, as this man had been to him.
He never heard back from the man, but the profound act of writing the letter made a response unnecessary. His work was to let go of his own hurt, not seek resolution from someone else. There is now peace and boundless possibility where malice once lodged.
Scott-Martin Kosofsky -- in "The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year" -- writes about Yom Kippur's power, "What is clear is that there will be no painless forgiveness and none without uncomfortable self-confrontation." This is in part because Yom Kippur offers atonement for wrongs between humanity and God but not for those between people. In order to atone for sins against others, you must seek forgiveness directly from those you have wronged or offended.
The cantor sings on Yom Kippur, "Here I am, deficient in worthy deeds, trembling and frightened in dread of Him." But despite a substantial fear of the Almighty, it is our fear of the rejection of others that often prevents us from admitting shortcomings and seeking forgiveness. Yet our inability to be vulnerable in this way is the very thing that keeps us in our own self-imposed state of rejection.
And what of my own apology? A response came last month -- nearly six years after I'd sent it. The letter popped up in my inbox one evening; the subject line simply read, "Hi." She explained that although she'd never responded, my apology had brought so much peace to her. It had arrived during a tumultuous time -- juggling the incessant demands of two small children while trying to move to a new house -- and had been a much-needed salve. We have spent the past two months catching up on our lives well-lived: sharing snapshots of our children and laughing at our foibles.
We never know if or how our words of regret will "land," but we cheat ourselves when we don't say them anyway.