The Refreshing Practice of Repentance

images-1“We are not in bondage to even our most grievous mistakes,” says Louis Newman, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College in Minnesota.  I find that helpful to consider today, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of repentance.

For anyone observing the holiday or just interested generally in the subject of repentance — not as an immersion in guilt but as an opportunity for renewal — it’s worth listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Louis Newman on her NPR show, On Being.

Newman, who wrote a book on repentance, approaches the idea as a practice that’s healing, rather than punishing. So long as we’re willing to look honestly at what we’ve done, make amends, and choose another path, we can be healed.

As Newman tells Tippett, our human tendency to run away from the bad things we’ve done, to hide them or pretend they never happened, actually keeps us in bondage to them. Repentance, on the other hand, “is about coming to terms with who we really are.” It’s about claiming and owning our own mistakes, with an understanding that deep down our essence is good. So by repenting and correcting our path, Newman says, we can “return to the original wholeness that we strayed from.”

What’s more, you don’t have to change everything altogether in order to acknowledge and correct a past wrong. Even small changes may be effective and allow you to set a new course, says Newman. “If you’re headed in one direction, and you turn only one or two degrees,” he explains, “over an extended period of time if you now walk in that direction” instead of in the one you were headed in before, you’ll end up in a completely different place.  In other words, we don’t have to make a radical move to make a meaningful change.  We need only acknowledge that we must pay attention to a particular habit or weakness or failing that’s caused harm, and act differently next time.

That’s how change begins.

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