Recently I read a moving account of one German woman’s actions and the impact that they had. A 92-year-old man living in New Jersey received a three-page letter from her in which she apologized for wrongs long past. Reading it, he wept.
As the article recounts about the letter writer, “Doris Schott-Neuse…told him how her grandfather had acquired Hirschmann’s family home under the Nazis, expressing her shame and imploring him for forgiveness.” When Hirschmann was young, he had had to escape Germany and the purge of Jewish people; he arrived in the United States leaving his unrecognizable homeland behind. For years, Schott-Neuse wondered how her family had acquired the house since they came into ownership of such a nice property for so little.
“It seems to be only now that we – the grandchildren generation of the men and women who became criminals – start to ask tough questions of the degree and way our families have been involved and actively contributed not only to a war but to the shoah [Holocaust],” writes Schott-Neuse.
The urgent truth that this moving story illustrates is a simple, powerful one: honor is healing.
Showing honor to a person who carries visible or invisible wounds stitches back together in a small way what’s been torn apart, especially when, individually, we cannot comprehend the uniqueness of their suffering. Whether we pay special honor to veterans of war, or orphans and foster children, or women who have been raped, or acquaintances who are pulled over four or five times a month because they drive a car that’s “too nice,” to go out of our way to actively pursue ways to honor others is to promote healing, understanding, and community.
Apologizing even when you individually did not wrong someone can mean that you are honoring their story and experience. It is a way of standing in proxy for those individuals or groups unable or unwilling to confess their wrong and ask forgiveness. This is not the same as poorly exercising boundaries in terms of burdensome feelings of guilt or responsibility, because it does not come from misdirected feelings of shame or a weak sense of self; rather, it comes from a steady sense of self that cerebrally bears witness to others’ pain and seeks to recognize the power that self may have to, in some way, comfort the grief and anger of a person who has been singularly wronged.
Hirschmann’s response, immediately accepting the letter of apology, bears witness to this truth: “it is obvious that you, too, are suffering and it pains me to think of that — you, who are blameless,” further corresponding, “You were not satisfied…and examined the depths of your heart to reveal the era’s true impact. You had the option to ignore it and instead, you confronted it. My tears reflect the fervent hope that the humanity, dignity, and compassion you have shown is shared by others of your generation and the generations to follow.”
It is worth asking, what hurts do you carry that someone has honored through respect for your experience? When have you experienced healing, peace, and forgiveness through someone going out of their way to apologize or make amends for a time in which you were dishonored?
And – perhaps more difficult – who can you honor through apology, respect, or action, even if you have not personally, individually wronged them?