New Internationalist

Sorry is the hardest word


It pays to shake hands and put the past behind you. Photo: Properpilot, reproduced under a CC license.  

For a change, here’s something beautiful. A kind, tender message sent to me by a dear friend, Anita Verghese. She received it from her friend Asha Mokashi. The word ‘Asha’,  possibly coincidentally, means hope. ‘Every year, in August, a dear friend calls up to say “Micchami Dukkadam – I am sorry”. This is the Jain ritual of asking for forgiveness, of all your dear ones, everyone whom you may have wronged, knowingly or unknowingly, on the last day of the festival of Paryushana’.

It set me thinking. We do need reminders, perhaps a bit of gentle prodding sometimes, to acknowledge the fact that often we deliberately or unwittingly hurt the people dearest to us. Our closest family, our friends and relatives. These are the ones we take for granted. Too frequently when we overstep permissible boundaries, we are forced to take corrective measures at work and in more formal relationships. It’s with the intimate, inner circle that we allow little jibes, hurts, the tiniest not-quite-insults but still unacceptable remarks to pass without the requisite ‘I’m sorry,’ or ‘I didn’t really mean that’.

I know that Diwali, the major Hindu festival celebrated in most parts of India, is also a time when people take sweets and gifts to their friends, and especially to people with whom they have fallen out. It’s considered a time to heal wounds, build bridges and repair the damage done during the year gone by.

I grew up with Catholicism, taught to me by many good, precious people, and forgiveness was an important element of our rituals. I’m also familiar with Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. So why am I so taken with saying ‘Micchami Dukkadam’? Why does it resonate with me, charm me so much? I think, taking the time to think about all the people I may have hurt, would cause me to introspect more seriously, to change myself and to hesitate to say something hurtful. To think twice – no, 10 times – before I blurt out some thoughtless opinion which, in retrospect, would appall even a loudmouth like me. Because, like the old clichés say, in so many different ways, you can never take back those horrid words said in anger or spite. Or even worse, in genuinely, dreadful thoughtlessness or stupidity, all you can do is say fervently ‘I’m sorry’.

Asha, with infinite wisdom, writes on her blog: ‘For we cause the deepest hurt to the ones we care about the most, those whom we wished cared for us more, to complete the circle of reciprocity. For we suffer the most when we inflict suffering on them, seemingly with nonchalance.

‘For we expect so much more from them, than from random people who cut us in the queue or nearly hit us in the traffic. For it is on their approval, their validation, that we hang the meaning, the purpose of our lives, whatever else it is that we seemingly chase, in the mad scramble of our blind seeking. All roads, finally, lead to them, though we think we are headed in the opposite direction.’

Recently, as I’ve watched dear friends die, I’ve been struck by the futility of so many things we hold important. And as I experience an aching regret for the many things I’ve left unsaid, the many little acts of kindness I wish I’d done, before it was too late, the old people whose wisdom I neglected to listen to, I say to them ‘Micchami Dukkadam’. And for the living, my loved ones, family and friends, and all who pass through my life, I hope I have the grace to be good and kind while there is still time.

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