The psychology of repentance

In addition to his vast experience as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst treating survivors of childhood and adult trauma, Dr. Stephen Marmer is known by many of his patients as someone who has a positive view of the role religion can play in one’s psyche and happiness.
September 11, 2013

In addition to his vast experience as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst treating survivors of childhood and adult trauma, Dr. Stephen Marmer is known by many of his patients as someone who has a positive view of the role religion can play in one’s psyche and happiness. 

Marmer serves on the faculty of UCLA’s medical school and has a private practice in Brentwood, and his patients have come from almost every large faith tradition, including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. Speaking both as a professional and as a self-described “serious-minded” Jew, Marmer recently talked with the Journal about the intersection of the psyche and religion with regard to some of Yom Kippur’s main themes — forgiveness, repentance and God. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Jewish Journal: From a psychoanalytic perspective, what does Yom Kippur mean?

Stephen Marmer: It’s an opportunity to take a compassionate but searching inventory of who you are and how you’ve acted, and to know that if you make a sincere effort to improve you will be written in the Book of Life. 

JJ: What does that mean — to be written into the Book of Life?

SM: Not necessarily for more years, but for more richness in your life. It’s an opportunity, through honest reflection, to reduce shame and guilt and to add to growth.

JJ: How can examining your past actions lead to growth?

SM: You see your strengths, you see your weaknesses, you see the people whom you care about and whether you’ve lived up to your ideals in the way you treat them. It’s also a reminder that we don’t have forever to improve. Hillel’s third saying, “If not now, when?” really makes sense on Yom Kippur.

JJ: Where in the Torah does the theme of forgiveness appear?

SM: The most dramatic moment of forgiveness in the Torah comes after the sin of the golden calf, when God says to Moses that He’s so angry that He wants to destroy the entire people. Moses uses every wording that he can to persuade God not to do that and to forgive the people.

JJ: Can you talk about the themes of repentance and forgiveness that run through Yom Kippur?

SM: Forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin. If you repent, you will earn forgiveness. If you forgive, you will reinforce others’ repentance. It’s obligatory to forgive those who make true repentance — it frees you of corrosive grudges. If you repent, it frees you from destructive shame and guilt. 

JJ: Are there different levels of forgiveness?

SM: Yes. The first and most complete type of forgiveness is exoneration, in which you completely wipe the slate clean and restore a person to a full standard of trust.

In the second kind of forgiveness, which I call forbearance, you know that you can’t wipe the slate clean because the other individual hasn’t fully repented. But the relationship is still important, and you don’t want it to be destroyed by grudges. So you exercise forbearance to maintain the relationship while still keeping a watchful eye. This is very close to the concept of “forgive but don’t forget” or “trust but verify.”

The third level of forgiveness applies when the other individual is either no longer alive or has no intention of making any kind of reparation. But the preoccupation with what they’ve done to you is eating away at you, and for that you need to release. You don’t have to exonerate, and you don’t have to have forbearance. But, for your own sake, you have to let it go.

JJ: Which level of forgiveness did God exercise at Sinai?

SM: I think He exercised forbearance. I think He knew that we were very flawed, but He loved us and it was still important to Him to maintain that relationship.

JJ: Is there a proper way to apologize to someone whom you’ve hurt?

SM: You take responsibility and you don’t push it off on the other person. You have to try to give them reason to believe that you sincerely will put forth the effort to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. 

JJ: Is an apology that is mixed with an excuse truly an apology?

SM: Try not to blend your apology with accusations. You make your apology based on your actions. It’s OK to give context if you are asking for forgiveness. It’s OK to try to explain what was going on that prompted you to do these missteps. But try not to do it in a way that puts blame on the other person for provoking you.  

JJ: But what if the other person really did do something that, in a way, provoked your hurtful action?

SM: If there’s another issue about how they provoked you, then that’s an additional conversation for which they may want to ask for your forgiveness. If that’s a matter of concern, you need to make that a separate type of interaction. 

JJ: Should someone hurt by a loved one give the person who hurt him or her opportunities to forgive?  

SM: I like to say that it takes a little while for ink to dry. Before it completely dries, you can wipe the slate clean. What I mean is that if I say something, and I observe that it’s hurtful to the person whom I said it to, I want them to give me a minute or two in which I can recognize what I said, come to my senses and then retract what I said. 

And I would like to grant that same privilege to anyone who hurts my feelings. If you leave a little bit of space to allow a person to retract a misstep, you are going to have fewer hurt feelings. It’s much harder to reverse something once the ink has dried.

JJ: What impact does holding a grudge have on someone?

SM: First, it diverts a lot of energy from living your life. Second, it’s a constant preoccupation — you are letting the other person and the way they hurt you live rent free in your mind. And third, whenever you think about it, you go back and relive the hurt. All three of those things take away from productivity and happiness.

JJ: What does a refusal to apologize suggest about someone?

SM: It risks losing the relationship. It keeps you in a state of uncertainty and guilt and shame. It deprives you of the joy of healing. Some people think that an apology or repentance or reparation is too humiliating. But usually we have the choice of “being right” or “being friends.” In almost every case, it’s more important to choose being friends.

JJ: Is it ever appropriate for a third party to offer forgiveness on a victim’s behalf?

SM: For really serious matters, only the person who is hurt can offer forgiveness. I can’t forgive you for something you did to somebody else. I can only forgive you for what you did to me. When the pastor in Columbine said that he forgave the shooters for the murders of those kids, I thought, “You don’t have a right to forgive the murderers for the murders of those kids. Only the kids who were murdered have a right to forgive.” Only the victim can forgive for what was done to them. 

JJ: In the Hebrew month of Elul and in the days around the High Holy Days, do you do anything personally in terms of seeking forgiveness?

SM: I have a personal tradition with my two daughters (ages 28 and 31). We use the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to sit down, one on one, and I start by telling them all of the things that I regretted that I had done to them in the preceding year. Then I ask them if there was anything that upset them that I left out. I ask them for forgiveness and understanding.

JJ: And do they ask for your forgiveness?

SM: I say, “Is there anything that you want to say to me?” referring to things they may have done that hurt me. 

JJ: For how long has your family had this tradition?

SM: We’ve been doing this for over 25 years. 

JJ: Have Jewish teachings or wisdom helped you in your career in terms of how you counsel people?

SM: Yes. The whole general outlook of Judaism is very much like my psychiatric perspective. We have a yetzer hatov (good inclination) and a yetzer hara (evil inclination), which is very consistent with my view of human nature from a psychiatric perspective. 

JJ: From a psychological perspective, which Torah characters stand out to you as particularly interesting?

SM: For a long time I’ve wanted to write about how people changed in the Torah. And the character who changes the most is Joseph. I want to write about what religious and psychological forces helped turn Joseph from a bratty, spoiled, over-indulged, entitled teenager to a noble, wise, loving and generous brother and leader.

JJ: What transformed him?

SM: He acquired humility in jail. He was a big shot in his family, since he was Jacob’s main connection to Rachel. And he lorded over his brothers. Even when he went to Egypt he was a big shot in the Potiphar household. 

JJ: And what happened to him in jail?

SM: He was not bitter, he was not resentful, and he rose to the occasion. He behaved in such an exemplary way that the head jailer gave him additional responsibilities. A few years later, Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh, and instead of being angry at the wine steward for letting him languish in jail, he shows no grudge. His bad experiences cured his entitlement and his arrogance, and they made him gracious and humble.

JJ: And when does he show humility?

SM: When Pharaoh praises him for all kinds of wisdom, Joseph says humbly, “It’s not me, it’s God.”

JJ: Tell me about your relationship with Judaism.

SM: I am the gabbai of our Shabbat morning minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple. I blow the shofar at the main sanctuary services on Rosh Hashanah. I have the great honor and responsibility of sometimes singing the afternoon service on Yom Kippur to give the cantor a rest.

JJ: Do you study Jewish texts?

SM: I am always studying. I’ve written an 180,000-word Torah commentary that I’m in the middle of revising now. 

JJ: Do you identify with any denomination?

SM: I consider myself a post-denominational, serious-minded Jew. I don’t find that any of the denominations quite fit my ideas or my level of practice.

JJ: Have you counseled victims of immense cruelty whose relationships with God have been damaged or severed due to what they experienced?

SM: Yes.

JJ: Can you tell me about any of those instances?

SM: Holocaust survivors are the most dramatic example, although I’ve had a number of patients who were severely abused or tortured as children. They just cannot accept that God would permit a world in which cruelty of that magnitude would be possible.

JJ: And how does that manifest itself in terms of their belief in God?

SM: Some of them hold a grudge against God, and some of them reject God. I don’t even try to challenge them on that. I don’t challenge them on theological grounds. I just try to help them live as good a life as they can live. The only thing that I would try to help move them toward is release. What happened to them should not be something that they think about every minute.

JJ: Do you discuss forgiveness toward God with them?

SM: It’s not anywhere near the top of my agenda. If it comes up in context I will, but it’s not something that I push.

JJ: Why not?

SM: Because I can’t speak for God. I can’t blame them for their anger and disappointment. I am not a direct party to their relationship with God. It’s an issue between them and God. I’m a psychiatrist, not a rabbi.

JJ: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SM: No, I think we’ve covered enough for a New Yorker profile.  Thank you and have a meaningful and easy fast.

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