There are more people who won’t talk to me – nay look at me – than I care to think. Truth be told, even one is too many. No? Well I have a handful. But not for lack of trying to repair the breeches. I’ve apologized. In one case, make that fourteen conciliation attempts. Now it wouldn’t be nice if I just blurted out and told you everything. So I’m going to knead these women up into one person. I’ll call her…I’m tempted to say “Pinkellafant”, akin to the proverbial white elephant we allow to sit on the living room rug while we peek round its chunky hips and make pleasant conversation. But that doesn’t feel comfortable. You see, I really like her. For all the cold shoulders, I do. So I’ll call her Penelope instead.
We were friends for over a decade.
On the evening of our fall out, I needed to get out of the house for a bit. The apartment felt sticky to my soul. “Penelope!” I thought, and off I went. Outside it was even stickier but at least there was space. On my way across the street, a cop car idled by and pulled into action just behind my shoulder. The siren hit me with a slap. Maybe I should have paid attention and gone indoors. But I just kept right on walking. I knocked on Penny’s door. No answer. I knocked again. No-one. So I called her on the cell. Often she’d be playing music in the back of the house and not hear the bell.
“WHAT!” she barked.
That’s the way she’d been picking up of late. Stressed, feeling down. I mostly let it ride. Just walked straight past the “what!” right into the relationship, like a guest missing her queue at the door. But that night was different. I was feeling too vulnerable to push past.
“Uh. It’s okay. Nothing.”
“It’s okay Penny. Nothing.”
“Why d’you ring?”
“Listen, I can’t talk. I just have to go.”
“Don’t hang up!”
“I’m not. I just have to go.”
“Listen, I can’t talk. Everythings OK. I have to put the phone down…”
At the bottom of the brownstone steps lay leftovers from someone’s Wendy’s dinner. The cops and a crowd were gathered at the corner. It was too many lights and sounds for 9:30pm. I sat down against the low wall outside our building where grass from the garden offered fragrant relief.
On the corner, I saw Penny. She was advancing towards me with the same force she puts out on her evening route round the park.
“What’s going on!?” she demanded. Her concern was spiked with anger.
“I told you. I’m okay.”
“I came all the way over.”
“Penny, now’s not the time.”
Her mix of anger and concern was shifting with each push to talk and each “not now” I countered with.
“I left what I was doing…”
“It’s okay, you can go back to it. We’ll talk another time.”
Penny spun round and walked away. “I’ll call her from the cab on my way to the airport,” I thought as I watched her go. But she called first. She called minutes after I discovered that both my driver’s license and passport were misplaced along with $500 to boot!
“Penny, I was just about to call you. Can’t find my license. My ride’s waiting downstairs. I’ll be in the cab in a few minutes. Will call you then…”
My check, license and passport were still nowhere to be found and I was relying on some miracle to get past security at the airport. Mine was not what one would call an elegant state of mind. As soon as we pulled away from the curb, I called Penelope. But by the time I dialed, it was too late. I left numerous messages that Sunday. And I apologized when I met her on the street Monday morning.
“I want to apologize for having hurt you,” I said.
The road to reconciliation was closed and despite calls, a letter, more calls, an invitation that she join me for lunch, going over there…well, other than a hello, or a sentence about nothing squeezed out of air; that was the last we spoke to each other.
As the expression goes, “It blows my mind!”
Each time something like this happens, I find myself confused and in pain. I’ve been told I’ve apologized too soon, that I needed to “let the bird sit on the egg.” I’ve apologized too late, in the wrong way, I should try again, or let it go, or I didn’t apologize at all because my words were “I want to apologize”. There seems to be an art to this and it sure is one I don’t have the knack for! I’m left muddling over whether it’s only me, and how much of this is about her. Here’s a journal entry from my diary of a few weeks back:
Penny’s husband advised that I send yet another email. This is where I’m at though. I’ve spent many years apologizing to people for things that were not bad or mean acts. They were mistakes or decisions that others disagreed with…
Maybe I’m sick? All this running to fix things up. Does it stem from low self-esteem and feeling that the other is correct in refusing to forgive me? The relationship has always been more important to me than who’s right or wrong. At least that’s what I think. If I’ve shared what hurt me and inadvertently caused pain, or allowed myself to not be “on” in a dynamic, I made a mistake yes, but is that something for which I should not be spoken to for months, years, a decade! Where does one go when the response to an apology is, “Forget about it! It’s passed” – when in reality it’s the relationship, not the tension, that has come to an abrupt halt? If our relationship was so fragile that I couldn’t share my experience of what-is, was there really one to talk of? The question I ask myself is, “Has it been holy or unhealthy behavior that has driven me for years to ask Penelope for forgiveness?”
I’m fully aware that one need only ask for forgiveness three times. It’s Jewish to forgive. That’s one of our distinguishing traits. The sages tell us that G-d expects us to say, “It’s okay. Let’s move on.” And to then really do that! I’m also aware that it’s noble to keep on trying and to go beyond the letter of the law when someone can’t forgive. But is persevering with an apology ever undesirable.
I need to figure out the meaning of a story in the Talmud. Here it is:
Rav had a complaint against a certain butcher. When the butcher did not come to him on the eve of Yom Kippur to ask his forgiveness, he said, “I’ll go to him and calm him down.”
Rav Huna met him on his way there and asked, “Where are you going?”
He replied, “To soothe the butcher.”
“You will cause his death. He should be mollifying you. He will be punished on account of your degrading yourself.”
But Rav went anyway. When he arrived, the butcher was sitting and chopping the head of an animal. Rav stood next to him. The butcher raised his eyes and saw him.
“You are Abba,” he said with contempt, addressing the sage by his first name. “Go away! I will have nothing to do with you!”
While he was chopping the head, a bone jumped off, stuck in his throat, and killed him.
Who’s culpable? Rav or the Butcher. Rav Huna warns the former, “Don’t go. It’s not the time. Your attempt is going to backfire, and with disastrous consequences.” But he goes anyway. Sooooo, if Penelope was not ready, I should have “sat on the eggs” – just as her husband suggested! When I rush head-on into an attempt at resolution and make things worse by forcing the situation, then who’s to blame? I ponder, and rest much of it on my shoulders.
But the butcher had his issues too, to say the least. It was the eve of Yom Kippur and he was sitting chopping the head of an animal. Can you see it? Everyone else is dressing in white, going to the mikva, thinking of mending things, and there he sits with his butcher’s knife chopping at the head of a beast. I’m not pointing fingers. I do that too. Obsess over what’s gone wrong and indulge in grievance that is. But a couple of hours before the Day of Atonement?! When Rav walks in, you stand up. You wipe your hands and say, “I’m sorry.”
Both felt wronged. Ditto with Penelope and me. Her sister later told me I’d, “Slammed the phone down on her and essentially told her to ‘get lost.’” That was her reality. For my part, I felt let down by a friend and pushed to the limits of comfort when she wasn’t there at the time I needed her; and then demanded that I open up when she was ready but I wasn’t.
I’m not playing Rav and putting her in the role of the butcher. Not at all. I myself am “Rav” and the “butcher.” I pushed too hard for reconciliation. And I’m choking on my own bone. Stuck in my throat, plugging my life force is the desire that there be peace. It sounds like a noble ideal but m-a-y-b-e it’s just my ego. As I asked, has my pursuit of peace been coming from a holy or selfish place? That’s my question this eve of Yom Kippur. If I send Penelope just one more birthday gift, just one more bunch of flowers, or email, if I call again, then I run the risk of standing at the door of her discontent and being party to her gagging on her own negative feelings.
So I say to myself, I think this Yom Kippur, I’m going to sit tight. I’m going to listen to Rav Huna and a different voice within. I’m going to draw the arrow backwards with the intention of shooting it forwards. My sense is that my yearning for harmony is largely about wanting to appear to others and myself as a “good person.” Well it’s time to let that go. The Work in this moment is to just do my next best effort and let-others-live.
So Penelope, if you’d prefer to hack at a grievance, then go ahead. And if you want to tell me the conflict’s all over, that there are no pink elephants in the room or gripes on the table, then so be it. My sense that I can change your way of being in the world is a delusion. I want to wear white (at least I’m going to give it a shot) and leave you be. Let’s do things on your timetable for a change. This Yom Kippur I’m going to try spending the day confessing my own sins and not worrying if you have any. And maybe I’ll look up from my prayer book after a moment of intense concentration to find you beside me, and you’ll say, “Shana Tova.” To you too my friend.
But instead, I ignore the voice of Rav Huna. Call it co-dependency, call it lack of self-esteem, or call it anything else. I have to ignore the labels. Because just maybe my impulse to call is a real desire for peace and it’s hidden inside those cloaks. So I pick up the phone to call “Penelope.” I find it a more compelling notion than the thought that there’s ever a time not to say, “I’m sorry.”