“Flipping the Script”
I watched intently this past week as Mark Zuckerberg rose and turned toward families who had lost young ones sat with eight by ten framed photos of their Beloveds held out before them; listened as he said he was sorry for everything they had been through, acknowledging that no one should have to go through such suffering. And then he explained how the tech industry was going to continue to take the lead in efforts to ensure that no one ever would endure such suffering again. He apologized on command, more or less, chided into doing so by one of our legislators, because apology is what we do in our culture. It is the expected response. It is the thing that makes harm go away, right? We apologize and then move on. And the anticipated response is forgiveness. That’s what we are supposed to do, too. There. All done.
Another senator came a little closer to the heart of the matter as she spoke, tears welling up in her eyes: Twenty-eight years we’ve had this thing called the internet and we – she said we, meaning all of us – have yet to figure out a way to ensure people’s safety in it’s use. Astonished and grieving both at the lack of ability for seemingly good and intelligent people to figure out the technical work-arounds necessary to protect folks and especially our young ones. When we are possessed of such a powerful tool, we owe it to humanity to put the brakes on when it becomes dangerous, to slow down and think about what we are wielding, to be creative in planning instead of ending up in the position we are in now, forced into reactivity.
She said we – meaning all of us – because it isn’t the responsibility solely of the CEOs of major internet companies or of our government, and certainly not just of parents of children who are enticed into using systems that have the potential to do as much as good as they do harm. But it is easier to let it be, perhaps more profitable, or maybe not to meddle from places of authority too much in the lives individuals or corporations who support our positions of power and to then impose shame and blame. Because this is also what we do in our culture. Once we have someone or some organization to point the finger at, then we, again, are all set. Done. Let’s move on.
These cultural tendencies are just the things that Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg raises up in her book, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. A handful of us took a dive into it last fall and some thought it might be good to bring the work forward to the whole of us. And what better time than in a month when we are focused on justice and equity. Because these threads are woven through the practices she shares. We apologize all the time, meting out our quick "I’m sorry's" on the regular in the course of our days. Think about it for a minute. We bump into someone in passing – oops, sorry; we put the paper out to recycling before our partner is done with it – sorry about that; we eat the last cookie – oh, sorry. It’s almost a reflex. But we are not actually apologetic in these moments. How could we be so instantaneously? It has removed some of the real meaning from the words.
Ruttenberg cites the work of Moses Maimonides, a 12th century philosopher and scholar of Jewish law. He offers a powerful and game-changing path to healing and repair, she says. The stages of repentance he proposes have the potential to teach us here in the 21st century about what to do in the wake of harm. “People hurt one another,” she begins, as we heard in our reading this morning. Harm takes all kinds of forms and rises up from all kinds of places within us. And what might be okay in the face of simple little interactions in our closest relationships – might be, I say cautiously – is really not sufficient on the grander scale. We have allowed it to become so, codified it. I want us to think about “flipping the script,” placing apology closer to the end of the process as Maimonides suggests.
Step one is the naming and owning of harm and this may be the hardest part. We make an out loud confession once we have figured out what the real harm has been. It’s hard because it asks us to go below the surface and get to the heart of the harm. It’s not the surface words or actions. These are the result of the harm that underlies what we see or hear on the face of things. This takes a little soul searching, a willingness to listen to those little voices of discomfort within, the ones that might have stopped us before we committed the harm if we had been paying attention in the first place. An insensitive joke uttered at work, keeping the change from the cashier when we can see that it is more than it should be, calling out sick when we’re not and just have something better to do – we know better and it gets under our skin and saying so brings it out into the open where it can be looked at. It’s easy to become defensive at this juncture – right from the start! But the idea is to center the victims, clearly naming the harm without justifying it. Mr. Zuckerberg tried to do this in the moment identifying suffering caused as the harm he was somewhat responsible for as the CEO of Meta. And that’s a piece of it to be sure, but a deeper dive over time might render a more complete naming that would fall less flatly.
Step two is about starting to change. This is where we are once again in a similar situation or the same one if it is a repetitive behavior, and we make a conscious choice not to do it again. We separate ourselves from the transgression. And this is the not so funny thing about life – until we are able to do this, the opportunities keep popping up before us! Until we engage in the transformative process of changing our response to circumstances, we will continue to experience them over and over again. Clearly this situation with the internet is an ongoing one that has repeatedly occurred as we look at the numbers in the gallery, those families there. How many lives does it take before we enact substantive change?
Step three asks us to make restitution and accept consequences. It asks us to be accountable to the victim of our harm. We don’t start with this because we haven’t spent enough time with the harm to be in a position of truly making amends; to come at it from a different place as a changed being who gets it. We accept that our actions have consequences and we have taken the time to notice them, mull them over, think about their implications. We move from intention which excuses us to impact which highlights the effect. Mark suggests that his industry will continue to implement necessary changes. Maybe they have made some, but it seems like more than a continuation is needed. The gravity of the situation has not fully landed for those with the power to effect the needed changes.
Now, in step four, we can apologize. Not the quick “sorry” here, but something focused on what the victim receives and not what the perpetrator is putting forth. A real apology is about a relationship – vulnerability, empathy, sincerity, regret and sorrow. And it’s not always the right thing as it might induce further harm. Sometimes we need to hold things for a while, maybe forever, if returning to the harm is more harmful to the victim than leaving it be. When we think about restorative justice, we note that it can be a years-long process of diving deep into oneself as a perpetrator of harm before we ever get to the step of sitting down with a victim. A lot of preparation goes into a heart filled apology. But we did the culturally appropriate thing that day in the Senate.
The last step involves making different choices. This work of repentance is transformative as we turn from false narratives and engage with sometimes painful realities. It is about ownership of who we have been, but also of who we can become according to Rabbi Ruttenberg. It is a big picture view of healing harm. Harm is history making, she says, but how we respond to harm we have wrought is also history making. The 19th century Hasidic teacher Rebbe Nahman of Breslow said, “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, believe that you can heal.”
Widening out the aperture we can think about this work and how it can apply to our focus on justice and equity. Our conversation took us down an interesting path that morning downstairs. We began to consider the efforts we make in the area of social justice here at UUMH. We choose an organization every month that we can support as a congregation, acknowledging the good work that they do in our world, in our communities here on the Cape. And spurred on by this progression proposed by Maimonides we thought about the fact that these organizations exist because of some harm done somewhere along the line. Often it is systemic wrongs at the root of the need. What if we were to take the time each month to think about the root cause of the problem? Our donation, absent that consideration is a bit like jumping to the apology, however grateful the recipients most definitely are. What if we explored more deeply each month, named the harm, looked at ways in which change has been started by those organizations or on a wider scale, went deep into the initial causes and the effects over time, taking that in so that our sense of the situation is heightened. When we get to the place of financial support we do so with an enhanced understanding of the need and how we got to this place. When we call for change in our societal systems we do so by calling out the painful realities that we tend to hide from in our culture – hide from as we jump to shame and blame and hollow apology.
But let’s just wind that lens down a little and talk about ourselves and our own relationships – personal ones at home and intimate ones here in our midst as a community of faith grounded in Love and promise. Promise because we are a covenanted community as Unitarian Universalists. Bound by our great covenant of love here at UUMH and by the Principles we affirm and promote as a people. We talk about worth and dignity a lot. When we cause harm, we are making an affront to a person’s dignity. And when it is someone that we are close to, we want to fix it right away. And so, we do the culturally appropriate thing and apologize. And the victim does the culturally appropriate thing and says it’s okay; they grant forgiveness. What if we took some time to do the work that Maimonides has laid out before us? What if, after a bit of self-reflection and making inroads toward changed behavior we set aside some time to work on relational repair together? I am not suggesting that this is easy, but I am suggesting that it is a healing process that clears the way for right relationship – the core meaning of justice. We can make justice right at home!
This week I invite you into noticing how easily we fall prey to the mechanisms of our culture that get in the way of personal growth and real understanding among people. Notice with curiosity, not judgement! I invite you to try out this flipped script in just one instance – make it a simple one – nothing earth shaking, but one time when you hold back the quick apology, figure out the real harm and name it, notice if it pops up again and respond in a new way, be accountable from a place of true understanding, and make what can then be a sincere apology. I invite you to explore how that feels. In so doing we create the kind of relationships and community that we strive for.
So may it be and amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, February 4, 2024