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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  1. #1 Rajan Naidu 05 Oct 12

    If we examine our motives, so our apologies never become easy, routine or pain free, and if we focus entirely on the thoughts and feelings of the other, that might improve the quality and value of what we have to offer.

    If our apologies are primarily to do with securing closure or a feeling of exoneration for ourselves, we risk adding offence to injury.

  2. #2 Merlyn Brito 05 Oct 12

    Saying sorry and making amends is the hardest task of of all because it involves not just complete contrition but humility and the willingness to accept a rebuff in reply. I think saying the words is the easiest part but genuinely meaning them and accepting the consequences is what makes people shy away from the whole experience.
    Beautifully expressed as usual Mari - you are becoming the voice of my conscience. Thank you.

  3. #3 Prabir 05 Oct 12

    Learnt something new from this. Had many Jain friends and teachers- even my boss for many years, but I had not learnt much about their festivals or functions. This michhami dukkadam forgiveness custom one is beautiful

  4. #4 Roy Trivedy 05 Oct 12

    Another great article by Mari. Thought provoking stuff! keep it up Mari!

  5. #5 david cohen 05 Oct 12

    Mari writes about steps that those of us who are intensely active have to pay extra attention to. It means paying attention to people who are sick, who are hurting or whom you neglected.
    We have just gone through our Jewish reflection which also calls us to return and reflect. It culminates with Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and reflection. Yom Kippur also includes acknowledging publicly our collective sins of neglect, abuse, hurting others, neglecting the poor. We confess these as a community. Sometimes we contribute our own wrongs to the collective community in the synagogue and they invariably resonate with the congregants.
    Periodically I try to do my Yom Kippur version of I am sorry by saying we don't have to wait for Yom Kippur.
    The real test is to be in the same or similar situation and not repeat what had wronged another person.
    Repenting, asking for forgiveness, can open up a process of mutual healing and recognition
    that part of your humaneness is to recognize and accept the other.
    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

  6. #6 Stan 05 Oct 12

    A beautiful practice indeed. But adivasis have taken this notion of forgiveness to another level. Their relationships are based on unquestioned acceptance of the other. So anything the other person does or does not do while it may cause hurt, does not affect the relationship with the person because the incident/event is separated from the person. We have numerous examples of this. A colleague betrayed the trust of the team. It took us non-adivasis in the team years to forgive him and rebuild a semblance of a relationship but the adivasis in the team were seen sharing a meal with him the next day! Wisdom does not lie in bank balances nor does wealth have the answers we seek.

  7. #7 Aloke Surin 05 Oct 12

    Micchami Dukkadam would appear to be an excellent ritual of healing and renewal...thanks for putting it onto the spotlight. Truly, in the end and during the journey, nothing matters more than the relationships that we have nurtured during this ephemeral passage we call life!

  8. #8 Viji 05 Oct 12

    Well said the thoughts in it. I agree with you on all counts. Besides saying ’Sorry’, the words and actions left unsaid and undone also are most important. As you have said, we have to respect, love and be kind and generous to the living....our family and friends. Very often, before we have time to do that they are gone.

  9. #9 vijay 06 Oct 12


  10. #10 Sabita Banerji 07 Oct 12

    Beautiful indeed. I am sending a link to this blog to all those I care about the most in order to say ’Micchami Dukkadam’ to them.

    Perhaps we also need special days to say two other things that are often neglected; ’Thank you’ and ’I love you’

  11. #11 bennosmp 08 Oct 12

    The writing above gives a different prescriptive of asking forgiveness or to forgive too...It sure takes real courage to say ’please forgive me’or to say ’I am sorry’..The life & teachings
    of Christ is a great example...So does all the religion teaches the same...
    It takes a human to forgive and a super human to ask for ’sorry’.

  12. #12 TMT 08 Oct 12

    So true...

  13. #13 SUNIL K S 10 Oct 12

    Micchami Dukkadam.

  14. #14 Pam Britto 16 Oct 12

    I loved this - it is so true and beautiful and if followed, would bring many disenchanted souls together.I hope that I will lead by example in my family and circle of friends. Thank you Mari for awkening in me a reminder to make amends and give time to those who areprecious and often mislooked because they are so close to us.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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