“I regret what I did.” “I’ve served my time.” “I’m ready to reenter society.” We’ll all seen those parole hearing scenes in the movies, where the prisoner is mocking the parole board by uttering the right verbiage, yet doesn’t mean a word of it. In fact, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, within five years, three quarters of ex-prisoners are rearrested, and for some crimes, like drugs or theft, the statistics are even higher. You don’t have to be an expert in criminal justice to conclude that something is not working.
Sometimes when I’ve had an argument with someone, and the apology I get seems insincere and calculated just to make me stop taking, I will ask what motivated the apology. My reasoning is that if the apology is not based on a shift in perspective, empathy or compassion, then it is a deceptive stopgap measure that foments an inevitable repeat upset.
“Death and life are in the hand of the tongue…”
- Proverbs 18:21
The Torah portion, “Metzora,” describes the lengthy return process of the “metzora,” a person who has been expelled from the Jewish camp for having promulgated gossip. While expulsion can seem like a steep punishment for a wagging tongue, the Torah wants us to understand how gossip and slander can tear apart the fabric of a society. The origin of negative speech originates in the thought process of judging someone negatively, constructing a “reality” around that judgment and then attempting to rope others into endorsing the construct, and so on. Comedic author, Gail Carriger, quips, “I never gossip. I observe. And then relay my observations to practically everyone.”
Gossip is a virulent social virus, and so the cure has to be targeted to fight the disease at its deepest level. In order to return to the camp, the metzora was required to bring a sacrifice of pure, clean birds. Thus, the metzora was to understand that he had misused the noble gift of speech and had made himself into a bird, which is a creature that incessantly chirps (just think of Twitter and social media).
Another part of the ritual required the metzora to bring cedar wood, a plant that grows tall – thus symbolizing haughtiness - and hyssop, a lowly bush - to symbolize humility. The High Priest shaved the metzora’s head and face, and each part was significant. The head refers to cognitive distortion and an ego that convinced him he was better than others. Shaving the metzora’s eyebrows sensitized him to correct his way of seeing others in a negative light. Shaving the metzora’s beard – the facial hair that framed his mouth - was to remind him to use his mouth for proper speech.
Another part of the ritual involved anointing the metzorah in different parts of the body: the ear (representing how he hears and interprets reality), the thumb (representing action – how the person will henceforth act in this world), and the big toe (representing how the person will henceforth “walk” in this world).
Responsibility and Re-connection
Each component of a complicated ritual that takes place over days was intended to take the metzora through the process of feeling the pain of disconnection, and then rebuilding him mind, body, and soul in order to reconnect. It’s not punishment, but rather rehabilitation – true rehabilitation as it is meant to be. As I pointed out in the previous Torah portion, “Tazria,” the gossip-monger didn’t become a metzora overnight – it was a gradual process that was unchecked, and so it culminated in this extreme condition. That’s why there had to be an incremental process that was strategic and calculated to address the underlying issues. Otherwise, you get the case of the disingenuous parolee – and that’s not good for anyone.
Getting back to the insincere apology, that’s why unresolved repetitive conflict ultimately prevents people from reaching their relationship potential. As the saying goes, “what we resist persists.” So how can we reconnect with someone with whom anger has disconnected us? Let’s apply the Torah’s prescription and see how that could look today.
“How would your life be different if…you walked away from gossip and verbal defamation? Let today be the day…you speak only the good you know of other people and encourage others to do the same.”
~ Steve Maraboli
Birds - unconscious speech: This shows up when we turn complaints into criticism. Criticism is a global personal attack, whereas a complaint is about a specific behavior. “I’m upset that you came home late without letting me know because now our dinner is cold,” is a complaint. “I can’t believe how inconsiderate and selfish you are not to call me,” is a criticism. If you’ve been critical, apologize and separate the criticism out of the complaint and stick to the facts.
Cedar wood and hyssop – humility: Don’t be so attached to your position that there is no space for another point of view. If you are fighting to be “right” someone else has to be “wrong,” and when this happens in your relationship, it’s the relationship that loses. There is no true victory when you fight with your partner about who is right. Most arguments are not between right and wrong anyway, but between a “right” and another “right.”
Shaving the head – Change your perception, change your story, change your life: We are all meaning-makers par excellence, but what we don’t realize is that we have a lot of choice about it. We make up stories in our head, but then we have to live in the stories we create, and often those stories – which we confuse with “the facts” - get in the way of relationship. When you are upset with someone’s behavior, ask yourself if there is any other possible explanation or motive other than the negative one you have attributed to that person.
Shaving the eyebrows – appreciating the good: We always find what we’re looking for. Make it a practice to focus on what is working, what a person is doing right, and what there is to be grateful for. You can repair arguments when you realize that your focus was narrow and that you excluded the reality of the bigger picture.
Shaving the beard (this goes for ladies too, BTW) – words create reality: We think we have the right to say whatever we want – as long as it’s “true.” Before shooting that zinger, ask yourself – Is it necessary? Is it kind? What result am I hoping to accomplish by saying it? As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “To be kind is more important than to be right. Many times what people need
is not a brilliant mind that speaks, but a special heart that listens.”
So if you have something that should not have been said, apologize. Own it. Admit you were wrong. After all, love does mean having to say you’re sorry.
Internalize & Actualize:
1. We all have someone in our life we struggle with. It could be our boss, our employee or our husband or children. Write down five things that really drive you crazy and you would like to discuss. Then next to each one, write if it is complaint or a criticism. Then rewrite any criticisms into complaints that can be said to this person for a productive outcome.
2. Most of us unfortunately gossip about others. We might excuse it as truth or just venting, but think about whom you may gossip to and whom you are gossiping about. How can you work on this to minimize and ideally eradicate it from how you speak to others? Think about the places and situations where it is most likely to happen and what you can do to avoid continuing this negative and unhealthy habit.
3. Think about anyone you may have apologized to recently but you didn’t really mean it. You said it either to keep the peace, appease the other or just “do” what you knew you needed to even though it wasn’t sincere. What can you now do to clear the air in an honest way? Write down a few practical ideas and then try this week to implement them and work on the relationship with this person.