Yom Kippur

Q & A With an Apology Maven; Between Man and Man

By David J. Litvak

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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The world is filled with mavens. Diminutive Dr. Ruth is the world’s foremost sex maven. Isaac Mizrahi is a fashion maven. Donald Trump is a business maven. Thomas Friedman is a political maven. And with the recent publication of his timely new book, “On Apology” (Oxford University Press), which is based on the study of more than 1,000 apologies, Aaron Lazare is poised to become North America’s, if not the world’s, foremost apology maven.

The publication of “On Apology” is the culmination of the prestigious career of a man who has dedicated his entire professional life to improving relations between people.

Lazare, who trained at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and former chair of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Since 1989, he has served as chancellor and dean of the medical campus, published a widely read article in Psychology Today about apologizing, and has appeared as an apology expert on NPR, the BBC, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and even ESPN.

In the days preceding the Day of Atonement, it is customary to ask forgiveness from all those whom one may have wronged, in an attempt to wipe one’s slate clean before asking for God’s mercy. The Forward spoke to Lazare on the cusp of the High Holy Days.

* * *

Forward: How did you become an “apology maven”?

Lazare: It was a betrayal of trust by two friends over an important matter. I waited for an apology that never came. But the incident led me to explore the process of apologizing and how it can be used as a powerful tool for healing.

Forward: In “On Apology,” you claim that certain elements have to be in place for an apology to be successful. What are those?

Lazare: In order for an apology to be successful, the key ingredients that need to be in place include acknowledgment, remorse, explanation and if need be, reparation. The result of the apology process ideally is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relations. This is something that I have devoted my life to. In retrospect, everything that I’ve written and done in the past is bringing disparate parties together, whether it be bringing the patient and doctor together or bringing families together. In fact, in our family we have eight adopted children from three different races.

Forward: The release of “On Apology” before the Day of Atonement is very timely.

Lazare: Actually the book was released in September to precede the upcoming presidential election. But it’s also a very happy coincidence that the book was released during the High Holy Days.

Forward: Are there any Jewish threads or themes in “On Apology”?

Lazare: Well, when I started writing this book, I thought what I was doing was original until I read Maimonides — who was a renowned 12th-century Jewish scholar, commentator and physician — and I discovered that he had written extensively about apology and forgiveness. Now I feel like I’m following in his footsteps, but one thing that he didn’t talk about was what makes a successful apology. And in Judaism, the concepts of apologizing and forgiveness are inextricably linked. Actually, apology and forgiveness are mentioned in the Talmud, and of course they are a central tenet of the High Holy Days. In Judaism, you can’t be forgiven unless you apologize or repent.

Forward: An underlying theme of the book is that apologies have an important role to play in international relations. Why do nations and public figures have such a hard time apologizing for misdeeds?

Lazare: Well, the primary reason is that they don’t want to look humiliated or weak. For example, the U.S. ought to apologize for the torture of Iraqi prisoners, but the president doesn’t want to look weak. Our culture doesn’t encourage our leaders to apologize, and therefore we don’t see many current apologies for transgressions that have occurred in the public eye. I hope that we can change the culture. When public officials do apologize, it’s usually a pseudo-apology, or a failed apology. For a public apology to be successful, the official has to have credibility with the constituency that they are apologizing to.

Forward: What are some of your favorite apologies?

Lazare: Well, Abraham Lincoln sounded like an Old Testament prophet when he apologized for slavery, and Richard Von Weizaker was very courageous when he apologized to victims of the Holocaust for the sins of the Nazis and told the German Parliament that Germans were all sinners. Another one of my favorite apologies is Muhammad Ali’s heartfelt apology to Joe Fraser for taunting him over the years. That was really sweet.

Forward: Is it ever too late to apologize?

Lazare: No, it’s never too late. In fact, there is a moving story in the book about a 70-year-old Jewish man who apologized to a friend of his after 60 years. So, no, it’s never too late to apologize.

David Litvak is a freelance writer based in Canada.

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