“Owning harm does not involve justifications or excuses.” — Rev. Marty Pelham

By the time you read these words, the annual period of reflection known as the Days of Awe will have ended.

The ten days following the first new moon of fall are, by Jewish tradition, a time to look back over the year with an eye to facing the harm done since the last year began. This beginning of a new year ends with a collective mea culpa in the synagogue, a public statement of transgression known as Yom Kippur, considered the most sacred of days.

On Sunday, partway through the Days of Awe, I found myself in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist church, where I sing tenor in the choir. To my surprise the service was about repentance and the meaning of atonement, an exploration of how one repairs harm done to others, how we reconcile ourselves with the creator after another year of tearing at the fabric of our always fragile relationships.

The first step, we were told, is not the apology on which we often focus. Rather, repentance actually begins with a simple acknowledgment.

I did a bad thing. I caused harm.

The next step is to offer the victim of our act a chance to respond, to tell us what we can do to repair their pain, to make them whole, if we can. It feels to me that many of the hurtful things I do occur without me even taking notice. What follows is my recognition of one action I did catch; it is my apology to someone I may never meet again:

I yelled at you across the field on Saturday, breaking the sabbath calm by reprimanding you for an act that may only be wrong in my own mind. You and I know what that supposed sin might be, but this is not that story. This is me not wanting to do that anymore – to shout in strident righteousness as if I know how a person should behave and you need instruction.

My behavior was what Rev. Marty Pelham described on Sunday as an expression of confidence in my own worldview and an absolute negation of yours. I don’t know what harm I caused you, a stranger telling you off on a sunny afternoon in a hayfield.

I wish I had not thrown my fear and anger at you – not broken the soft hiss of the wind across the grasses, the ruffle of the trees, the scattered chirps of creatures unseen. It did not give me my peace back, and it took yours away.

Not knowing what you really took away from our interaction, I cannot apologize for anything more specific than that. All I can carry into the rest of my life is a hope I will recognize such acts before they are committed, and an intention not to do it again.

Apology offers no certainty of forgiveness, lets no one off the hook, even when the people involved know each other intimately. Indeed, the expectation of forgiveness turns confession into bargaining, encumbering it with a demand that the victims of our acts give us something in exchange for our admission.

Rev. Pelham said the purpose of true apology is to, “…allow for a failure to remake you.”

I hope this is a year of renewal and growth for us all.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.