STEPPING INTO THE RIVER:
AN AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGIST IN MOTHER INDIA
Six Things to Learn by Atoning
- I asked my mentor - a very successful business man in his 70s, what his top three tips are for success. He smiled and said, ‘Read something no one else is reading, think something no one else is thinking, and do something no one else is doing.’
- After I watched my dog get run over by a car, I sat on the side of the road holding him and crying. And just before he died, he licked the tears off my face.
- As my father, three brothers, and two sisters stood around my mother's hospital bed, my mother uttered her last coherent words before she died. She simply said, ‘I feel so loved right now. We should have got together like this more often.’
- I kissed my dad on the forehead as he passed away in a small hospital bed. About five seconds after he passed, I realized it was the first time I had given him a kiss since I was a little boy.
- In the cutest voice, my eight-year-old daughter asked me to start recycling. I chuckled and asked, ‘Why?’ She replied, ‘So you can help me save the planet.’ I chuckled again and asked, ‘And why do you want to save the planet?’ ‘Because that's where I keep all my stuff,’ she said.
- When I witnessed a 27-year-old breast cancer patient laughing hysterically at her two-year-old daughter's antics, I realized that I need to stop complaining about my life and start celebrating it again.
- A boy in a wheelchair saw me desperately struggling on crutches with my broken leg and offered to carry my backpack and books for me. He helped me all the way across campus to my class and as he was leaving he said, ‘I hope you feel better soon.’
- I was traveling in Kenya and I met a refugee from Zimbabwe. He said he hadn't eaten anything in over three days and looked extremely skinny and unhealthy. When my friend offered him the sandwich he was about to eat, the Zimbabwean said, ‘We can share it.’
The best sermons are lived, not preached.
This is the time of year when millions of Jews fill their synagogues and assess their behavior and intentions during the past year. Have I lived my life in a manner that is worth living? Where have I fallen short? Whom have I offended? How? What is atonement, anyway?
- Atonement is managing the regrets we have for our behavior. We have all done things in the past year that we are sorry for. We wish we hadn’t done them. We’d like to take them back, or correct them, but the moment has passed. I’ll use everyday examples in talking about this.
- There is a difference between healthy regret for what I may have done, and unhealthy regret, which usually take the form of psychological self-punishment and excessive guilt. People often think that if they are excessively hard on themselves, it will erase their errors and they will feel better. In fact, they will feel worse. Guilt is a fairly useless emotion except in sociopaths, who intentionally hurt people with no feelings about it at all.
- Our offending behavior may be something we actually did, or, it may be something we should have done but failed to do. I was at a crosswalk in my city waiting for the light to change. An elderly woman with severe osteoporosis stood next to me, unassisted. The light changed and I spontaneously offered her my hand. She snapped at me, “I can do it myself!” I realized that I had offended her by assuming she was incapable. I had tried to take away her independence. Once I realized it, I turned around and walked back to her (she was walking much more slowly than I) and said, “I’m sorry if I offended you by offering you my hand. It was wrong of me.” She looked at me and gestured with her finger for me to lower my head. I did and she kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you for understanding. I’m sorry I snapped, but it’s so important that I do as much for myself as I can.”
On the other hand, a friend had e-mailed and offered her support and concern when a member of my family was ill. After the crisis, I didn’t write her back and thank her for her concern. I had hurt her feelings. The next time I saw her, she remembered my negligence. I apologized. Despite all the disruption of a family illness, once the crisis was over, I certainly could have spared five minutes to write a brief e-mail. After all, she was still in my Inbox.
- Our offending behavior may have been intentional or unintentional. I was at two different dinner parties. At the first, the host and hostess served a fish. One couple made an angrily pointed out that this was a kind of fish they didn’t like and didn’t eat. This is intentional hurt. At the second, one couple, vegetarians, was served chicken. They said nothing, filled their plates with vegetables, and took a tiny piece of chicken to slice into small pieces and move around the plate. They didn’t want to offend their hosts. However, their gracious hosts noticed and asked if they didn’t like their meal. When told that the couple was vegetarian, they exclaimed (not angrily), “Why didn’t you tell us when we invited you? We could have had more that you could eat or even made a vegetarian meal. Now we know for next time.” This is a day-to-day example of unintentional hurt from well-meaning people.
- Self-examination by itself is not enough. Apologies are in order. Taking stock of our regrets is important. How else can we discover our mistakes and learn from them. But if we keep that knowledge to ourselves, we have left the people we offended, still offended. Only by shifting our regret into an apology can we be cleansed of our errors.
- Through apology, “atonement” because “At-Onement,” and we feel more whole .
Marc Nemiroff, Ph.D.
Author of Stepping Into the River: An American Psychologist in Mother India
(available through amazon.com)