A series of writers answer the question: Do we still know how to atone?
This might be the most beautiful sentence in the English language: “You were right; I was wrong.” Enjoy it now: You’ll seldom hear it again. And you’ll say it even less. Both lapses are unfortunate, but the latter is worse. Because the first step in atonement is simply to acknowledge that you’ve done something for which you should atone.
For 12 years, I wrote The Ethicist, a weekly column in The New York Times responding to readers’ moral dilemmas: Should I tell my best friend her husband is having an affair? May I buy a bleacher seat but move to an unoccupied box seat? Five minutes after each column appeared, reader email flooded in, criticizing my moral reasoning. Sometimes the readers were persuasive, spotting an aspect of a question I’d neglected or a flaw in my argument. Now and then they convinced me that I was simply — what’s that ugly word? — wrong. Then I would revisit a question and recant my folly.
The first time I wrote a mea culpa column, I expected to be mocked and derided for my confessed misjudgment. I feared I’d lose credibility. But I got the opposite response — I was praised for my courage, cheered for my integrity. People wrote that this was the first time they’d seen a public figure admit a mistake and amend it. I was shocked: I hadn’t quite realized that I was a public figure.
Beyond any benefit to my readers, acknowledging error was enormously valuable to me. Even after seeing that I was wrong, I could have anxiously attempted to defend a position eroding beneath me. Many of us do so, and it’s exhausting. But to abandon my ill-conceived idea was a joy. A relief! I didn’t have to go on kidding myself that if looked at the right way — with a sort of cocked head and a squint — I was actually kind of right. No. I was wrong. And it was by renouncing my error, like shedding a wet woolen overcoat, that I could replace it with a better idea. It was the only way I could grow and develop and learn.
The mistakes I admitted were errors of thought, but the principle applies to errors of conduct. We atone not just for the good of the people we’ve wronged, but also for ourselves. To do so is liberating — exhilarating. For a little while, until we blunder again. But it’s a start.
Randy Cohen is the author of the recent book “Be Good: How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything” (Chronicle Books).