NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Atonement” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome
Atonement: Release, Reconciliation, Redemption
Copyright 2012 David J. Bookbinder
On the first Yom Kippur after my near-death experience I was living in Albany, New York, in a house owned by an elderly couple who had survived the Holocaust. They had taken me under their wing, apparently seeing in my nightmare experience something of their own. Although I was no longer a practicing Jew, on this Day of Atonement, they invited me to participate in a brief ceremony. We walked to a nearby creek where we joined other members of their small congregation, most of them also Holocaust survivors. Each of us wrote what we perceived to be our sins and regrets on a piece of paper, then we tore our papers to bits and tossed them in the creek. We watched the water carry them away and then returned to my landlord’s house for lox and bagels.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and reflection, a solemn day, the most holy day of the year – the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” It was especially poignant that year, six months out from the most pivotal moment of my life. That Yom Kippur was not, for me, so much about confessing that year’s sins and seeking forgiveness, as is traditional, but more about recognizing and facing the largest errors I had made over the course of my life and the need for a monumental shift in direction. It was a day to revisit everything, acknowledge where I’d gone wrong, and clear the slate to make way for a new life more akin to my nature and purpose. It was the first step on the path to becoming a therapist.
To apologize is to express sorrow at causing suffering. Atonement carries apology to the next level. To atone is also to express remorse and repentance and to make amends for that suffering, if possible. Atoning and repenting alchemically transform the base metals of our wrongdoings and the suffering they cause in ourselves and others into the gold of compassion; and then we give it away.
Atonement happens not only on Yom Kippur but everywhere and everywhen. It is a powerful healing force.
An example: A mother yells at her child as she herself was scolded, then catches herself, holds that child in her arms, apologizes, and vows to act differently the next time she is angered. In these actions, she heals not only the child’s hurt, but also, often, the child within her, as the compassion that flows from her atonement falls also on her own internal injured child.
Another: The fourth through twelfth steps in addiction recovery programs embody atonement and repentance. Those who embark on that path take inventory of their character, scrutinize their experience, acknowledge their wrongdoings and shortcomings, make amends whenever possible, and carry forward to others the spiritual gains they have achieved.
Just as the bumper sticker says it is never too late to have a happy childhood, so it is never too late to atone.
When I was nearly 41 and my mother 70, she came to Albany to help me in the early stages of recovery from the near-fatal events I’d recently endured. Defying my father’s wishes for her to stay in Buffalo with him, she spent two weeks taking care of me, and in that time showed her loving attention and told me how sorry she was for the mistakes she had made in raising me. Her atonement reopened our hearts and helped to reverse decades of mutual hostility. In the many years since then, we have argued exactly twice, and only briefly. Recently, she asked me to write her eulogy. Now, I can.
Like my mother’s, my own atonement has also taken time. With help from Facebook, I’ve reconnected with my high school girlfriend and with the woman I lived with during my Albany experience, both of whom I had planned to marry and both of whom I left. With trepidation, I wrote them to express my sorrow for things I had done when we were together and for how things ended between us. My intent was not to ask forgiveness, though that is what I received, but to try to heal any lingering wounds. The effect was to bridge the gap of many years and make way for new friendships to emerge.
In my work as a therapist, I carry forward the lessons I have learned from atonement. My errors and my atonement for them help me guide my clients to forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and to move on. Atoning releases guilt and regret and paying its lessons forward in this way brings a feeling of redemption. ‘I have been where you have been,’ I have frequently said, ‘and maybe I can save you twenty or thirty years.’