Apologies are Like Cheese: Preparing for the High Holidays

I recently had the opportunity to ask forgiveness, a mentor and colleague wrote me about a situation where I had "dropped the ball." I ignored the email at first, then sighed heavily before opening it. The process brought me into the season we are about the enter, the Hebrew month of "Elul" which starts on September 1st. It's meant to be training for Rosh HaShanah, though a training which never really stops. It's training for what our people call "Teshuvah" - the process of turning around to face ourselves, apologies, and re-commitments to do better.

In my reflection and conversation with a close friend, I've realized there are a few very different kinds of apologies, and they may be a bit like cheese*, taking time to mature. The easiest kind are when we recognize a wrong we've done as soon as we've done it, when there isn't a lot at stake, and so it's easy to say, "I'm sorry." Phew... These are like the mozarella cheese that google tells me I can make at home in 30 min. It's like the cheap cheddar at the store. I like it though!

On the other end of the spectrum, are apologies that I will probably never make. Think of the sometimes-wonderfully-stinky aged cheeses, which cost a lot. Here's a list of the oldest ones. Some apologies I will never make, it may be because of ego, but unfortunately some relationships are just so toxic, that it's not healthy to return to them. Sometimes people demand apologies from us, as a form of emotional manipulation, when we've done no wrong. It may be good to hear them out, and to empathize with the legitimate pain they feel and offer support. There is an important sub-category here, the cultural and often gender-based expectation of apologies. These have nothing to do with who actually caused any harm, they're just expectations, which are most often put on women but internalized by many regardless of gender. They are expectations to apologize regardless of the reality of what happened. I think this is a form of gas-lighting, undermining people's sense of reality, and a form of emotional abuse. I don't have special wisdom here, but this midwestern-nice, perhaps Puritan, expectation undermines the depth, openness, and intimacy of all of our lives. Everyone has the right to invoke the old Polish saying goes, "not my circus, not my monkeys."

Some of the most poignant and fruitful apologies are in the middle. They are the kinds of apologies which are hard, sometimes it takes weeks, months, or years to mature into making them, like a good (and easily edible, cheese). They are the kind where there is something really important at stake. Often they're the apologies that we need to make to friends (or former friends), and family. For me, they're like the blue-aged cheese, that's just a few years aged. It's a bit hard to swallow for the average mortal, but you know that a lot went into figuring out that this thing could actually be eaten, then lots of trial-and-error to reproduce it, and lots of work after that to make it good. These middle-of-the-road apologies are not actually middle of the road at all, they're what make a mensch - not just a person who does good because that's easy. A mentsch, for me, is someone who also acknowledges their flaws, does so flaw-fully, but still does it. There's a lot at stake in these apologies, usually our egos, attached to being seen and seeing oneself as always good, or kind, or dependable, or whatever character traits we hold most dear while also struggling to live up to them. Maturing oneself into making these requires a commitment to actually change who we are a bit, and definitely how we act.

It's important to both hold oneself responsible as well as have lots of compassion on oneself with these apologies. I know I have a few which I'm still maturing into, and they may take a few more months of years. I won't let myself off the hook for working on them, but neither can I push myself too quickly because if I do they will not come out sincere, which would cause whomever I've hurt even more pain.

*I am embarrassed to say, and must apologize, I don't actually know as much about cheese as I'd like to. If you're someone who does, please feel free to correct me, and help fill in this part of the analogy.