Saturday, September 14, 2013

Atonement, Forgiveness, And Our Most Fundamental Error

Scientific American   Today is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Although it is often called the “holiest day of the Jewish year,” what is notable about Yom Kippur is not the fact that it is particularly holy, nor is it the fact that many Jews you know might be particularly hungry today. Yom Kippur is notable because it is really all about the unequivocal importance of one thing — atonement. We sit in our religious services all day, reflecting on the need to atone for our sins. However, it is stressed that we cannot just do this by showing up to services and praying. We must also directly ask for forgiveness from those that we have wronged in the past year; and, in turn, we must be willing to grant forgiveness to those whom we believe have wronged us.

This past week has been a particularly challenging one for me, a fact that is only made more salient by my recent reflection on Yom Kippur. This was a week filled with a lot of stress – a major disagreement with friends (an unpleasantry that doesn’t happen all too often, thankfully, though this relative infrequency makes it especially painful when it does occur), dissertation work, transitioning back into a new semester of teaching, losing a flash drive for a period of about 24 hours (always enough to give me a few panic attacks). I had to face the unavoidable fact that I’ve once again found myself over-scheduled and under-rested this semester, and brace myself for the uncomfortable reality of having to let go of a few commitments and inevitably let people down. And of course there were more things — smaller stresses here and there that are not worth mentioning, and larger ones that are less appropriate for a public blog. But in a way, it’s almost perfect that Yom Kippur has arrived for me after such a truly stressful, overwhelming week. If nothing else, this week has served as a critical reminder to me of one of the most consistent and foundational facts in all of social psychology. The environment that surrounds us — those stressors, obligations, demands, fights, and other situational pushes that we constantly experience — have a strong, disconcerting influence on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If we’re going to reflect on atonement, it must serve us well to acknowledge just how important our surrounding environments can be when it comes to events that require repentance — and just how often we might fail to acknowledge the situation’s strong role in our lives. If someone were to judge me for anything that I said or did this week, I know that I would hope they would have accounted for the numerous stressors and other dramatic ongoings that could be influencing my words and actions. Unfortunately, given what I know of social psychology, I’m also well aware that they probably would not have done so — and to be fair, I likely wouldn’t be immediately prone to doing so either, if the tables were turned. [...]

I bring this up today, on Yom Kippur, because if we are going to focus on atonement, it is worth considering how our ability to forgive and forget might be at the whim of our cognitive biases. All too often, we are quick to form dispositional attributions for behaviors that might actually have situational causes — and all too often, those attributions are negative. Perhaps that driver did not cut you off because he is a jerk, but because another car was about to swerve into his lane, or because he had two children in the backseat who had just distracted his attention, or because his wife was in labor and he was rushing to get to the hospital. Maybe that girl had to stop on her way to class because of an emergency, or she just added the class the minute before she walked in, or she was actually accidentally showing up 30 minutes early for the next class. It becomes so much easier to engage in this atonement process and understand where others are coming from once we realize that all too often, we are actually doing ourselves a disservice if our ultimate goal truly is forgiveness. We can often over-perceive the presence of bad intentions arising from other people’s inner traits and personalities, when those bad intentions really might not be there…at all.

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