October 23, 2018

High Holy Days: The curse of being right

How many of us have been going around during these Days of Repentance apologizing to those we have wronged during the past year? Be honest. Have you made your list of the people you have hurt and the offenses that have hurt them? When you have apologized, have you settled for the classic cop-out: “If I have hurt you in any way, please forgive me”? Or have you simply asked for mechilla — forgiveness — and moved on?

Here we are facing one of the most important acts of the Jewish tradition —asking forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed against God’s children, and for which God cannot forgive us — and so many of us are left bewildered, paralyzed, distracted.

It’s so much easier to ask God for forgiveness than to ask another human.

If you lost your temper with your mother, or made too much noise for the neighbors, or were rude with a customer, or flaked out on your brother, or ignored your wife when she needed you, or yelled at your kid who deserved better, or mistreated your business partner, or bullied one of your suppliers, will you go to each one individually and ask for their forgiveness for that specific offense?

Why is it so difficult to say, “I’m sorry, I screwed up”?

I’m no psychiatrist, but I have this theory that one of the greatest human pleasures is to be right. In fact, it’s more than a pleasure — it’s a deep need. Being right is like an emotional fortress that we build for ourselves to provide shelter against a cold and scary world. The minute we sense that we’re “wrong” about something, we feel the walls of this fortress start to crumble. The enemy called Doubt has breached the walls and threatens to destabilize our lives. 

That’s why it can be so hard to say, “I’m sorry.” An apology is an admission that we’re wrong. It’s as if we were attacking our own fortress of certainty.

This certainty makes sense for some core principles and ethics, but when it infiltrates all of our views and our general attitude toward life, we pay a heavy price.

For one thing, certainty stifles curiosity and leads to a duller life. If you spend most of your time with people who agree with you and reinforce your certainty, how interesting is that?

But much worse, certainty makes us do things we end up regretting. When do we get angry and say hurtful things? When we’re sure we’re right. It’s like a narcotic that hypnotizes us into acting like someone else. I’ve seen kind, civil people get really angry when their positions of absolute certainty are challenged.

It’s easy to be humble when you know for sure you’re wrong, as when you’re facing a traffic cop who’s about to nail you for burning a red light. But what about when you know for sure you’re right, as when you’re sitting across from a Romney or an Obama supporter and all you want to do is throw that baba ganoush salad their way?

And what if you end up hurting that person in some way? Come the Days of Repentance, will you apologize to them, even though you know for sure you were right? 

How many of those moments have happened to us this past year that we wish we could take back? A rude e-mail? A sarcastic remark? A hurtful outburst?

Do we have the strength to breach the walls of our fortresses and say, “I was wrong”?

I once heard a rabbi say that Jewish holidays are annual reminders of lessons we must apply throughout the year. So, if we’re having trouble saying “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong” during these Days of Repentance, it’s surely because we haven’t had much practice during the year.

But here’s a comforting thought: The guilt works both ways. People can be as bad at receiving apologies as they are at giving them. Why? Because we’re all afflicted to a certain extent with the “curse of being right,” which makes it so very tempting to receive an apology as further proof that we are, in fact, in the right.

One of my favorite tests of character is to see how someone responds to an apology for something that really hurt them. If they accept the apology with grace and a generous spirit, they’re my kind of people. But if they use the apology to rub it in and show how right they are, well … let’s just say I won’t go out of my way to befriend them.

Maybe, then, this is the missing ingredient in High Holy Days sermons encouraging us to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

We talk so much about the importance of making apologies, but too little about the importance of accepting them.

The truth is, they feed into each other. The better people accept apologies, the more people will make them, and the more sincere they will be.

And on that, I’m almost sure I’m right.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.