A series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?
My mother said it every year to my sister and me when she was getting us dressed to go to High Holy Day services: “Apologize. Say you’re sorry for all the things you did wrong to each other this year.”
Ever the devil’s advocate, I would always say the same thing: “And if I don’t forgive her?”
“Then the sin is on your head. Remember, God’s watching.”
To me, a naturally vengeful person with a stubborn sense of right or wrong, this seemed patently unfair, even in the hypothetical. Nor was I sure which seemed more disingenuous — the mandatory apology or the coerced absolution. If I wasn’t sorry, why should I have to say that I was? And if I was mad, why couldn’t I just stay mad?
We’re currently living in a Golden Age of False Atonement. The progression has become nearly as familiar as the old schoolyard rhyme about love and marriage and the baby carriage: first comes the comment/Tweet/Instagram photo that vaguely or pointedly or advertently or inadvertently causes offense to Jews/Christians/Muslims/gay men and lesbians/straight people/Democrats/Republicans/men/women of any and all races or creeds. The resulting outcry. The digital mob demands a sacrifice by means of ritual bloodletting, or, failing that, a public apology.
Sometimes this garners a statement of genuine soul-searching, à la Jay-Z vowing after the birth of his daughter never again to use the word “bitch” to refer to women in a song, or Jason Alexander’s essay about his horror on discovering that the joke he made about cricket on “The Late Late Show” could be seen by some as the kind of anti-gay bullying he has always abhorred, an act of contrition so touching that it’s given him (and his fabulous new hair) a second act as a political pundit. Sometimes you get something so clearly anguished and intimate that it actually makes you uncomfortable, like Kristen Stewart’s “I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry” admission that reminds us uncomfortably what unformed lumps of hellacious narcissism we were at 22, when we were lucky enough not to be famous.
But then there’s the response most depressingly common and beloved by America’s favorite sociopaths from Rush Limbaugh to the Real Housewives of Everywhere: the non-apology apology. “I’m sorry you took it badly” and the subsequent “What’s your problem? I apologized!” kind of statement that somehow manages to illuminate the speaker’s utter disdain and lack of remorse, while robbing the wronged of the gift of their pure, unimpeachable anger, amounting to a second insult that is somehow worse than the first.
So this High Holy Day season, I say let’s lose the insincere apologies and just own up to being not very nice people who say hateful things sometimes. Every once in a while, there’s no better way to say you’re sorry than to let someone else be mad.
Rachel Shukert is a contributing editor and pop culture columnist at Tablet Magazine. She is the author, most recently, of “Everything Is Going To Be Great” (Harper Perennial, 2010).