Just before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (or as I would like to call it, forgivefest), A Lot of Jews make social media posts asking their friends, relatives, countryfolk, etc. for forgiveness for any forgotten, ignored, or unrecognized wrongs that they might have done to those people in the past year.

It’s something that in the past I’ve asked on social media and it’s something I’ll surely ask again. But when I do so, I prefer to reflect on the past and on the now, and to come away with something meaningful in saying I’m sorry.

Apology is an outward expression of introspection. Introspection turns into all-consuming guilt if it is bottled up and imbalanced. Outward expressions of contrition, as we’ve learned all too recently on the national scale, are worth little if the capacity for real introspection is missing.

So, come and introspect with me.

Certainly in the last year, I have done things for which I should seek forgiveness. Little things, like bumping into someone carelessly, and big things, like forgetting to call a friend before some major life event. For these things, I am certainly sorry–life got in the way.

But if my graduate school advisor taught me anything, it’s that sorry means little and excuses even less. What matters is results, and not just scientific ones.

I’m also, of course, interested in the fact that yesterday we had Indigenous People’s Day, today we have Coming Out Day, and then tomorrow there is a day for the Jews to atone for our sins.

You would think, perhaps, that the Jews should get a day off from apologizing for ourselves and some folks should apologize to us for a change, but I know I don’t live in that world and I won’t pretend I can.

At the same time, though, I can’t help but reflect on the indigenous people who I have known, and on the people with marginalized orientations, identities, and genders who I have known, and the ways that I have in ignorance either been insensitive or outright rude to them. Most of these things were when I was a child, though some were embarrassingly late in life. My awakening to social sensitivity was not a rapid one.

In many cases, I’ll never know that I upset a specific person–especially in today’s world where so many interactions are the fatiguing culmination of many such interactions with many dozens of people, and where the wronged party is usually too exhausted to get into THAT conversation again and just blocking or unfollowing is their main recourse. I don’t blame them. The best thing I can do for such people is what they have wished for–leave them alone.

But how can one atone for an interpersonal wrong without contacting the person you wronged? One way is this, or an even less distinct social media post asking for forgiveness.

On the other hand, there is a better option. Sometimes something cannot be fixed, much as tikkun olam, repairing the world, is a Jewish principle. Sometimes you have missed your chance in that instance–and I don’t mean just because the person blocked you on Twitter. Perhaps they moved away, or you lost touch, or you’re too embarrassed to speak to them…or many other concepts.

In this case, I return to introspection, and expressing it from the outside. It is too easy to think that the world is against us, that everything is a vast conspiracy by other people who wish us ill. It is far harder to ask, “What did I do wrong that this outcome happened?” Sometimes it is nothing. Often it is a contribution to a greater context where everyone could have acted better.

In asking the question, we achieve the greatest step towards apology–asking for a way that we can be better. Even if we do not advertise this, even if it is disconnected from past bad behavior in specifics, it can be a tremendous step to just say “I will improve, I will be better, I will not do this to another person again.”

When you don’t know even that you did something–if you aren’t sure–this might be hard to commit to, but it isn’t impossible. Asking first, “Wait, what if I did do something wrong?” is a step away from “Hmm, I’d better pay close attention to my effect on people in the future.” It is a journey towards examining yourself and finding the apology inside you.

In case that sounded like the sort of thing that I’d use as a parody title for a self-help book, I assure you that I’m still the very materialist scientist you know and possibly like a little. But at the same time, emotion is a spiritual concept as much as a biological one. The meat that I am is the meat of my soul.

And before I go into 25 hours of starving that meat to bring out its most spiritual depths, I must wonder: who have I hurt? How can I be better? How can I forgive others, how can they forgive me–and how can we all forgive ourselves?

The only solution I have–in fact the only solution I can imagine, rings like the final line of the Yom Kippur service: “For the coming year, in Jerusalem.” While I’d love to be in Jerusalem, I’d also love to be in a place where I am at least incrementally better than the person I was in the last year. So when I introspect, and I seek apology, I think I also want to commit to do fewer things that require apology. I am left with only one concluding pledge:

For the coming year, better.

This originally appeared on www.johnskylar.com.



John Skylar, PhD

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at www.johnskylar.com and www.betterworlds.org. Opinions my own, impressions yours.