My default word used to be “sorry.” I’d bump into someone accidentally; I’d say sorry. Someone would bump into me accidentally; I’d say sorry. My mom would tell me that I was saying sorry too much, and in response, of course, I’d say sorry. For a while, I thought that my penchant for apologizing was a positive practice, a sign of my attempts to be polite and considerate. But every time the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur rolled around, I began to notice the dangers of my habit.
Yom Kippur, or the “day of atonement,” is a fast day dedicated to reflection and repentance that occurs at the start of each Jewish new year, generally sometime in September or October. The holiday, which took place last weekend, is a day to right wrongs done over the past year and to look towards improvements that can be made for the coming one. When I describe the holiday now, it sounds like a very healthy and generally positive, albeit solemn, experience, and at this point I recognize that that’s what it truly is. But growing up, it was difficult to understand that reflecting on what has gone wrong in the past could ever be anything other than stressful and painful.
On Yom Kippurs past, the perfectionist in me was anxious to perform the ritual of self-reflection to the utmost extent. After returning home from synagogue in the afternoon, I’d sit in my room with a plan to think deeply and carefully about all that I could be doing better. Reflection seemed like a good idea, but as soon as I sat down to attempt it, it wasn’t long before I became completely overwhelmed. It was impossible to change the past, of course, but the more I thought about how much I could have done differently, the more I began to wish for a time machine and wonder how I could possibly fix things without one. I’d end my private self-reflection time feeling more sorry than ever and powerless to do anything about it.
After a few years of this stressful exercise, I decided that I needed to take a step back, relax, and not worry about the past quite so much. For a couple of years, I went in the opposite direction by distancing myself from the self-reflection process. I didn’t take it as seriously as I had in the past, and I let the day come and go without pursuing any real, deep contemplation.
It wasn’t until last year that I finally figured out how to observe Yom Kippur and how to apologize generally, in a way that felt right. On the morning of Yom Kippur, my brother and I decided to take a walk to the beach near our house before synagogue to do some thinking. It was a beautiful day, and as I looked out at the ocean, not only did I feel inspired to engage in some serious contemplation, but I also felt oddly calm, even happy, about it. Of course, the guilt quickly set in a moment later: Shouldn’t I have felt upset and anxious on this day, as per my usual tradition?
But after a while it hit me that happy was exactly what I should be feeling. Apologizing to myself or to others didn’t have to be an experience that involved tearing my hair out and wishing to go back in time. Self-reflection is a tall order; we’re asked to look long and hard at ourselves in a way that we are often too busy or distracted to do in our day-to-day lives. So when we do take that first look in our internal mirror, it can be easy to notice only the blemishes. Every little thing can seem so much bigger than it actually is. It’s likely that some of what we see is in fact big enough to warrant looking at critically. Even so, once we do look within, it seems that we have two options. We can view regret as an anchor to the past that leaves us helpless, or we can attempt to understand it as a guidepost for the exciting future that awaits. I don’t think that we can ever truly escape regret. We’re human beings, and we are not perfect. Wishing that what has happened in the past would’ve happened differently is only natural. But the word “regret” has become tinged with negativity, and it doesn’t have to be. Instead, we can start viewing regret as a habit that can be rewarding and educational while also being, like much else in life, best attempted in small doses.
We can keep saying sorry, and I’d venture to say that we should. Making right what we’ve done wrong in the past is the only way that we can grow beyond these mistakes in the future. But while we’re apologizing, let’s be careful not to become too comfortable with looking backwards. Wallowing in regret can feel oddly comforting at times; living in the past can seem like a welcome opportunity to temporarily avoid the future. But the future and the past are interconnected in an unbreakable way. We could not have reached where we are without building out of the past that we have, and our pasts are only defined by the way in which we view our world and ourselves in the present.
Living strictly in the past is impossible, and as I’ve come to realize more and more with each passing Yom Kippur, it’s also not at all productive. But we can’t ignore our past, either, nor should we. Instead, it seems that our best option is to view our past as a small but important piece of the puzzle of our future. It certainly shapes the other pieces, but it does not have to define the final product. That part is up to us.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.