Making Amends


We forgive ourselves and each other. If you find that to be easier to sing than to do completely, consider yourself human. Forgiving ourselves and each other can also be an aspiration, an intention, an act of hope and renewal, a prayer.

The 10 day celebration of the Jewish New Year has just ended. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time known as the "Days of Awe," or High Holy Days, is a time for repentance and atonement. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was yesterday, September 30.

It is a time for asking forgiveness and for making amends, for doing one’s best to set things right with others. That, too, can be hard to do.

I have been reading a book called “One Breath at a Time, Buddhism and the Twelve Steps” by a meditation teacher named Kevin Griffin. Kevin Griffin is an alcoholic who has been sober for 25 years.

I’m not in a twelve step program, but I know and have known, and I am close to, people who are. I have found a lot to offer in Griffin’s book, understanding the twelve steps as a path for self examination and self-renewal. I’ve also found it very clear and helpful, as I have resumed my own meditation practice.

At least six of the twelve steps are related to examining past mistakes and making amends, and the ten days of renewal and repentance in the Jewish calendar have a lot in common with those steps. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was first published in the 1930s. Some of its language feels, and is, dated. But here are steps four through nine, with some slight changes in the language:

  • Four: Making a searching and fearless moral inventory
  • Five: Admitting, in prayer, and admitting to ourselves and to another human being, the nature of our wrongs.
  • Six and Seven: Being ready, and humbly praying, for our shortcomings and defects of character to be removed
  • Eight: Making a list of those we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and
  • Nine: Making direct amends whenever possible.

Sometimes amends are possible. Even years after the harm has been done.

Kevin Griffin writes about his own struggles with making amends, as he worked through the steps for the first time. His brother Michael was on the top of his list. He wrote: (this is a paraphrase)

Years before, I had been directly responsible for his being arrested and eventually losing his house. He drank heavily then, but he didn’t do drugs. I did everything. I had been living with him, and allowing my friend Rick, a drug dealer, to use the attic as a crash pad. Other people came and went, buying, selling, getting high, coming down.

One night at midnight, I decided Rick and I needed to go on a long drive. We snorted the last bits of his cocaine and left, eventually crashing at a friend’s place 50 miles away. The phone rang early in the morning. I tried to take in the news. My brother’s house had been busted. Everyone was in jail.

Michael didn’t speak to me for a while after that, and he and I had never talked about it, even though, eventually, we had come back to being on some kind of speaking terms. Now, I looked at the phone. My arms didn’t feel strong enough to lift it. I picked it up and dialed his number.

For the first time, Kevin Griffin told his brother he was sorry. He learned about what Michael had gone through – his arrest, endless court dates, losing the house. Kevin wanted to try to make some kind of monetary reparation, slowly, in small amounts. But as they talked, it became clear that the call itself – Kevin’s remorse and his commitment to recovery – were the amends that were needed.

Sometimes amends are possible. Sometimes it’s too late.

I worked at Camp Bonnie Brae in East Otis for three summers, when I was in my early twenties. The administrators had high expectations and very fixed and prescribed ways of “doing camp.” They were demanding, (some might have even said harsh) and it was a challenging place to work. Two of the unit leaders got fired my first summer. But we did a lot of singing. I loved it. The next summer I went back as the leader for the counselor-in-training program.

That second summer, on the Saturday between sessions three and four, I got called to the main camp office. I went, with some trepidation.

“Are you driving to New Haven this afternoon?” I was.

“Meredith is being fired,” I was told. “We’ve been trying for a few days and haven’t been able to reach her parents.”

Meredith was a counselor in one of the units for younger campers. She was nineteen or twenty, but young for her age. I didn’t know her well. She did seem, from what I could tell from afar, to be over her head. But why fire her with two weeks left?

They didn’t say. It wasn’t my decision.

It turned out that Meredith was from Hamden, CT, the town just north of New Haven. I was deputized to drive her home. She sat in the back seat and cried. It was late afternoon when we arrived. There was no one there. The house was locked. I was eager to get home to my boyfriend, knowing I had to be back in the Berkshires by two o’clock the next day.

I have been trying to remember exactly what happened. Maybe we found the key under the mat. Maybe she climbed in through a first floor window. It is possible, however, that I left her on her parents’ porch. (It was summer. There were screens. She had a sleeping bag.) I must have told myself she was plenty old enough to take care of herself.

I know I resented having been saddled with the unpleasant and unpaid errand of taking her away from camp. I know it never crossed my mind to bring her home with me. I know that I did not and could not have imagined any other options for addressing the dilemma.

I’m bothered by my inability to remember. Inside, or on the porch? Why did she sit in the back seat? I wondered, as I tried to reconstruct what really happened, if maybe the boyfriend had come to pick me up at camp, and was part of the story. Maybe he remembered.

He disclaims all memory of and denies any role in this adventure. He said that he probably would have done the same thing at that age, leaving her behind.

I am guessing, if Meredith were to make a list of people who owe her an apology, and some kind of amends, that I would be on that list.

I was catching up with my friend Catherine recently, who asked me how things were going. I gave her an update, and said, “Aside from the bathrooms, the house hasn’t been cleaned in ages.” Catherine is a Smith grad, here when Jill Ker Conway was president. She said she remembers Ker Conway saying, “You’ll have to get used to having dust in the corners, if you are going to live lives of meaning.”

We are not and cannot be perfect. We have to get used to having dust in the corners.

And – we have to get used to making mistakes. And even used to the fact that we may sometimes do things that are cruel or unkind. Things we regret.

Our opening words came from Orlanda Brugnola, a UU chaplain and social justice advocate, who wrote,

As we move through life
Finding ourselves always newly wise, always newly foolish
We ask that our mistakes be small and not hurtful
We ask that as we gain experience
We do not forget our innocence
For innocence and experience are both part of the whole

Sometimes, our mistakes are not small, and they are hurtful.

We say things harshly

We snub or ignore someone.

We send emails or go online and post reactions that serve only to inflate our own egos or inflame a situation already sufficiently flammable.

We fail to be kind.

Or worse

And sometimes immediately, sometimes years later, we’re sorry.

We are not perfect.

I like to think this is like what Jill Ker Conway said about the dust in the corners.

We are going to do things we regret. If we never do anything we regret we are probably not learning, not growing, not stretching ourselves, not living lives as full of meaning as we can.

But what do we do with regret when no amends are possible, when the chance of apology or repair for the harm we have caused is, as the narrator of this morning’s story said, “more and more forever gone?”

One of the blessings of a mindfulness practice is that when we notice that the mind has wandered, we can always return to the breath.

One of the blessings of twelve step programs is that a person can begin again.  Taking it a step at a time, a day at a time.

My husband Booker is the boyfriend of long ago. He is a physician/teacher, and he told me a story from his early days teaching medical residents – a story he said I could share.

He was running a morning session after a holiday weekend, over which one of the residents in the program had been killed. He began the session with the announcement. They sat around the table, shocked, grieving. He asked if anyone had a question, or something to say.

Then he launched into the morning’s topic. One of the residents raised her hand and asked why he wasn’t giving them time to process what had happened, or why he didn’t cancel the session. “I told them, ‘You’re doctors. You have to learn how to deal with death.’ ”

He says the memory of that session still makes him ashamed.

We are who we have been. We have done what we have done.

Booker uses his story, now, as a teaching tool about what not to do – he tells it when he oversees residents in their own teaching.

Our foolishness and our wisdom, our innocence and our experience all belong together, part of the whole.

I do not know how or why, this week, I remembered that trip from East Otis to Hamden CT more than 40 years ago. There is nothing I can do about it now. Meredith is a name I made up. I don’t remember her real name.

I am, today, both the person I was long ago, and also a different person – the one I am now. I am sorry, now, for my indifference, for my failure to be kind, for adding to the troubles of someone already in distress.

We are surrounded, and if we go online or read the paper we are engulfed, by examples large and small of failures to be kind. And of much worse. All around us are accusations, one-upmanship, threats, anger. Suffering and indifference to suffering. Hatred and persecution of one group by another.

We need moments, and rituals, for self-reflection and renewal. For calling on memories that remind us of our own indifference, and that ask us to try, again to become our better selves.

There will be other Merediths, other Mayas*, needing our compassion and kindness. They are everywhere we go, in everyone we meet.

Season upon season, we forgive ourselves and each other.

Season upon season, we must begin again.

*Maya is the name of a girl in the children's story