Few of us find it easy to say the simple words, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong.’ They’re humiliating. They taste like cowardice and feel like defeat. But the real failure of courage probably lies in the inability to get them over our lips.
Maimonides explains that the true penitent ‘changes his name, as if to say, “I’m different now; I’m not the same person as the man who did those deeds”.’
There are two ways to read those words. They can sound like denial: ‘Me? Do that? It can’t have been me. The real me, the me as I like to think of me, never does things like that.’ We may well manage to convince ourselves, maintaining the fiction of who we fancy ourselves to be, while our actual deeds run along after us, calling out vainly in the voices of those we’ve ignored and bruised but who never quite manage to catch the attention of our conscience.
What Maimonides means to say is clearly the opposite: ‘I’m truly different now. I’ve struggled with what I did; I’ve learnt from it and I’ve changed.’
This is heart-work and it’s hard. It takes honesty and courage.
The Torah opens a beautiful short section on Teshuvah, return or repentance, with a simple but telling clause: vahasheivotah el levavecha. It’s often translated as ‘You shall lay this to your heart’, yet it can equally mean ‘Take yourself back to your heart’.
That is where the journey of Teshuvah, return, has to start. It may be prompted by remorse of a specific action. For example, someone once told me, ‘I never believed I was capable of hitting another person. I was utterly shocked by what I’d done.’ During the London riots, many people were horrified afterwards by the thefts they themselves had, in the heat and incitement of the moment, committed.
Remorse occurs when we find the honesty and courage to bring our actions to the awareness of our heart and say and feel: ‘I did’. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience.
Yet it’s also a moment of hope. For now the resolve to learn, do better, become a better person, the best person we are capable of being, is not merely a thought or general intention. It glows in the core of our being; burns with a fire which has the power to transform the memory of those very actions of which we feel most ashamed into our most powerful teachers for the future. We never, ever want to do the same again. We have learnt, in our very gut and soul.
Teshuvah, the belief in our capacity to change, to ‘return’ to being the person we want to and can be, is a profound affirmation of the human spirit. It begins in the heart and from there grows to embrace our relationships with each other, with injustice and cruelty, with nature and God’s world itself.
But it starts with taking uncomfortable and inconvenient truths to heart.