It is a funny thing about words you do not use in most conversations: you think you know the definition and then upon looking the word up in the dictionary you find something quite different. I used to think that the act of making amends with someone meant apologizing. Of course I was wrong. Just this morning I looked the word up in my handy dandy Webster’s and this is what I found: “Amends – Reparation for insult, injury or loss.” Did not see the phrase “to apologize” anywhere there although one can imply it from the word “reparation.” I of course immediately looked up the word “reparation” and found this: “Reparation – 1. The act or process of repairing or the state of being repaired. 2. The act or process of making amends: EXPIATION. 3. Something done or paid as amends: COMPENSATION.” Since “expiation” is not in my vocabulary I had to look that one up too. At this point I was hopeful I would not see yet another word which needed clarification. “Expiation – 2. Means of atonement.” I did not include definition “1” because it said “the act of expiating.” Is that not obvious? Regardless, the dictionary made no direct mention of the act of apologizing. Quite to the contrary, it seems like that definition was actively avoided.
I was made aware of this process by a group of friends almost 20 years ago. Of course my first impression was that I needed to apologize for my bad acts and be done with it. Upon reflection, however, it seems people deserving of an apology may have difficulty in believing the maker of such, me, because recent history makes them believe that I will repeat my bad act yet again. And I now know, they were probably correct.
But what does all this have to do with the universe? It is actually rather simple but speaks to my religious upbringing, Roman Catholicism. The Catholic Church that I grew up in had me constantly looking over my shoulder. It seemed to me, via their teaching, that each day I would commit a multitude of sins that I needed to apologize for and hope that God would be forgiving. Catholic priests in those days, much like their conservative Protestant brethren preach a whole lot of fire and brimstone. They contended if I were not on the right side of God, which was more likely than not, I would one day be condemned to hell. And so Catholics, at least, love to apologize for everything even though they have somewhere been little and no comprehension of their transgression and what makes it such. For example, the nuns assured us it was a sin not to go to church on Sunday and holy days and that we needed to confess that sin to the priest. I always wanted to say, “you mean God is pissed off at me just because I missed mass one Sunday?” I feel certain had I gotten up the courage to ask such a question, the answer would have been a very hearty “yes.” It just did not make any sense to me, still doesn’t.
I bring that up because as I entered adulthood and for many years afterward, I was crippled with Catholic guilt and no understanding of how to assuage it. The nuns would have said, “just don’t do it anymore.” No explanation, just don’t do it. Such insufficiencies dogged me for half of my adult life.
One of the first things I learned in dealing with my transgressions and the art of making amends, yes, it is an art, was coming to an understanding of the exact process leading up to that transgression. This was something I had never before considered, mostly because it never occurred to me but also because it had never before been suggested. And so here is where the universe, and I mean that literally, comes into play.
Long before life came to exist on the face of the earth, at the moment of the “Big Bang” actually, the laws of the universe were set into motion. Each and every one of those laws are absolutes, not to be broken, not to be denied, and certainly not to be contested, least of all by we humans. The universe was set into that motion at that moment and had be moving, inexorably, in a particular direction ever since. Scientists today are at odds with, and discuss at considerably length, what direction that motion is moving, but they agree that there is a single set of laws controlling that direction. We humans do not understand that law yet, if ever.
Since humans have roamed the earth they have tried, many times in vain, to understand what was happening to them and why. The ancients, in their desperate attempt, created gods who reigned over just about everything, the rising of the sun, the motion of the moon, the oceans, the rain, everything. But in that process, they also started making excuses for negative things which happened to them by laying it off to one of their gods or to other people. The idea of taking responsibility for your own actions seemed at odds with the teaching of the day. Unfortunately, such teaching, though modified, have mostly passed down through the ages and exist today. People today try to figure out why something has gone horribly wrong in their life and look outward for the answer, other people, bad luck, anything that does not require them to look inside themselves. There are also those situations which creep into everyone’s life where the literal forces of the universe negatively impact their life. It gets really bad when a person starts thinking it is only raining on them when common sense should win out telling them that the universe is not plotting against them, it is actually raining on everyone around them as well.
The reason for mentioning all these things in the context of amends is that humans seem ill prepared to put things in proper perspective. We humans have this tendency to be in a reactive mode rather than a much more productive proactive mode. I like to use the example of a 25 year old who dies from cancer. People love to say “how unfair” it is. The problem with the word “unfair” is that it implies some sort of reasoning behind it. It is as if the cancer looked at that 25 year old and decided to pick on him or her. Of course that is foolishness. They do not think the same way when a life-long smoker gets lung cancer or emphysema, so why do so just because the cause is not evident? They would be far better served by lay off blame, if blame really must be assigned, to the universe and its inexplicable and difficult to avoid actions.
One of the most common places to see otherwise good people behaving badly is our nation’s roads and highways. There is so much aggressive driving, so much inconsiderate driving, so much feeling of being “an exception to the rule” that driving for me personally is painful. Just because I get up on the wrong side of the bed, or I am running late, or I do not like the type of car you are driving, it is not alright for me to take out my aggressions, my impatience, my distaste for your taste on you. But when I do, I immediately need to take notice and make amends. Now I am not going to then stop you just so I can apologize for my bad actions if for no other reason that it is unreasonable. But more to the point, is it not what making amends to you means. I this case what it means is I must find patience, I must not be aggressive. In changing my ways I am making amends. And in truth, that is the only way amends can be made.
Here is another example of how I used to be. If at a checkout of a store the store employee gives me the wrong change and it is in my favor I would not notify them of the fact, even if or particularly if, it were a very small amount. In doing so I was teaching myself to be dishonest which of course translated to much larger things. They say the devil is in the details and this particular detail speaks to my honesty or lack of it. That meant for acts of this sort the amend to be made was to make honesty an absolute. I changed my way of going through life.
I really and truly dislike cold weather of any sort and this particular winter has been quite rough and doubled by an overabundance of snow. Many was the morning that I felt myself becoming cranky because of one or both such things coming into play. In the more distant past, my tact was to take out my crankiness on anyone who had the temerity to cross my path. They did not deserve it but I did it anyway. The amend here was simply to acknowledge that I am feeling cranky by I simply needed to work to keep that to myself and visit that crankiness on no one.
Today I look upon amends the same way I look at chocolate. Well, pretty much anyway. I invite amends because I have come to realize that it allows me to grow and be at peace with the universe. Life is constantly throwing me curves but I have become rather good at hitting them out of the park. But on those occasion that I cannot hit that curve out of the park for a home run, I can do nothing and be absolutely all right. Amending me has brought so much peace to my life it is something I implore everyone to do.