Every year, when Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, rolls around, I find myself staring at a list of people I’ve offended. It takes me hours to put it together; I go through my phone contacts, Facebook, and even class rosters to mark everyone I’ve annoyed, hurt, or disappointed. The process has become automatic at this point, but it’s nonetheless unpleasant. I don’t enjoy being reminded of all the times I’ve screwed up.
Over the course of a week or two, I apologize to a few people every day. I knock the easy ones off first: the people I don’t know very well. “Dear so-and-so,” the email begins, “I’m sorry for that time I said that mean thing to you in class.” People are often surprised by this (or don’t remember the interaction to begin with) and respond very warmly: “I ask for your forgiveness, too,” they say. I grant it and feel pretty magnanimous.
That said, the majority of the people on the list are those to whom apologizing is much harder — those who actually remember how I’ve wronged them, like my friends, parents, and teachers. Apologizing to them takes more work because I have to admit that I’ve let them down; or, in the case of my parents, admit that I haven’t properly internalized all of the values they’ve tried to instill in me. I haven’t always been kind, patient, or empathetic, as much as they’ve tried to make sure that I am. I feel bad about it and can’t always bring myself to say I’m sorry.
We all have a similar list, even if we might not write it down. It’s impossible to spend four years at Princeton without hurting anyone. You remember those to whom you’ve made nasty comments (and later ignore them when you pass them on the street). You remember the fights you’ve had with your exes but don’t apologize because you don’t want to say sorry first. It’s impossible to forget the times you’ve let down your friends, whether you’ve meant to or not. During the year, there are times when I’ve desperately wanted to apologize and clear my conscience, but I can’t bring myself to admit that I’ve done something wrong — especially to someone else.
And some years, I’ve chickened out. A few years, I’ve been too scared to apologize to my parents out of fear of disappointing them. I didn’t want to tell my ex that I was sorry for what I did. This year, there were a few people on my list that I couldn’t bring myself to ask forgiveness from. I couldn’t work up the courage to apologize, and I’m no better person for it.
But in the cases when I haven’t been too nervous about it, I’ve often come back with a better relationship and gained a better understanding of my weaknesses. I’ve often been hesitant to apologize for fear that it would be awkward or that the other person wouldn’t want to hear it — but that’s never been the case. In admitting my wrongdoing, I’ve developed my sense of empathy and recognized what character building still needs to be done. But that’s not all; it opens up the door for others to do the same. When I’ve apologized to people, their response is striking — they ask for my forgiveness, too.
Two years ago, I had a fight with one of my best friends, and we didn’t talk for several months. I hurt him very badly, and only once I’d apologized to him for what I’d done did I better understand how to not repeat the same mistake. I learned how to become a better person and friend. On the other hand, there are a few people in my life to whom I just can’t apologize, although I know that doing so will cost me nothing and will teach me some valuable lessons.
I’m not saying you should apologize to everyone right away, and I’m also not saying that you should keep a list. Do whatever works for you. But try saying you’re sorry to someone you’ve hurt this past year. It might not be as bad as you think, and you may find yourself growing every time you do.
Leora Eisenberg is a junior from Eagan, Minn. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.