Here is one of my favorite objects in all of Western art history. The rectangular panel’s relief sculpture features God chastising Adam and Eve for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. God, robed and looking awe-inspiring, stands to the left; Adam bends at the waist in the panel’s center; Eve crouches to the right; and the Serpent slithers at her feet.
I admire the ingenuity required to create this image, because it is one of sixteen panels, each cast separately, to form the doors of the Hildesheim Cathedral roughly one thousand years ago; and this casting of separate relief panels is a feat that had not been accomplished since antiquity.
I appreciate the complex symbolic arrangement of these panels, juxtaposing scenes from Genesis with others from the New Testament and thereby creating a complex iconography related to the fall and the redemption of humans (and, available to erudite scholars only at the time, an argument about the dangers of seductive women).
But it is this one little piece; this scene of Eve, God, and Adam; that speaks directly to my heart, particularly at this time of year, when my focus turns toward forgiveness and atonement.
I adore this particular scene, because the representations are at once very simple and incredibly striking. The Garden of Eden is denoted by twisted vines on either side of the composition and two giant blooms that resemble great, big dandelion puffs. Adam and Eve’s posture instantly conveys their emotional state, and the fingers -- the fingers are why I dearly love this sculpture.
Those fingers are what tell the story, not just of Adam and Eve getting caught, but of all of us and what we do in defense of ourselves. Ultimately, this is the perfect example of how NOT to apologize:
Discovering that Adam and Eve have sampled the forbidden fruit, God castigates Adam, pointing his finger and our attention toward the man. Adam then points to Eve, who in turn points to the serpent. One of my first Art History professors used to refer to this image as “Passing the Buck,” because that is exactly what is represented -- Adam blaming Eve for his transgression, and Eve throwing that accountability toward the serpent.
Upon their mistake being uncovered, the couple could have simply said, “We messed up. We made a promise, and we broke it. And we are sorry.”
Instead, they did what so many people do: they played the Blame Game, each one shifting responsibility toward someone else.
When my children were young, they tried this defense strategy often. “She told me to,” and “He did it first,” seemed to be mindless habitual responses to their transgressions being noticed. And my reply is likely pretty similar to God’s back in the garden; “It doesn’t matter what anyone else did or said. You need to take responsibility for your actions.”
Most adults no longer blame our actions on others in any outright manner (at least I hope we have outgrown this habit). We are ever more subtle than that. We have much more mature forms of “passing the buck”. These include:
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“That wasn’t my intention.”
“That wasn’t in my heart/my mind/my reality.”
“Here’s what was going on for me at the time: ____________________.”
While these statements may be true and may even prove useful to share at some future point, they have no place in an apology. What they actually do, rather than expressing any remorse or request for forgiveness, is serve to take the attention away from the act and the aggrieved person’s pain and direct it back toward the person who committed it in the first place. We often blame the situation or the other person, and sometimes this incessant focusing on our “intentions” can even seem to blame the person whom we have hurt.
I once received an “apology” that went something like this: “I’m sorry for any pain I’ve caused you, but you were involved in the creation of a dynamic that forced that event to happen.”
“I’m sorry, but” is not an apology.
That deflecting comes from a fear of retribution, of being caught in the garden, holding a half-eaten apple.
Someone near to me used to habitually do this whenever I told her that I had been hurt by something done or said in our relationship. One day, after I had heard one too many, “I didn’t mean to”s, I said “I don’t care if you meant to do it or not. The result is the same. If you don’t mean to run me over with a car, but you run me over with a car, I’m still hurt -- whether you meant to hurt me or not!”
Surprised, she paused for a moment; then she said, “I get it. I’m sorry.” Our relationship changed drastically after that. Now, we may eventually get to the place where we discuss what was in our hearts when we did or said something hurtful; that can provide a great deal of useful information for negotiating relationship issues, and it certainly helps us feel closer to one another.
But those conversations are NOT apologies. Apologies must come first. Indeed, although we fear “getting in trouble” and often try to make excuses to ensure that this does not happen, the truth is the trouble comes when we do not apologize in earnest.
What happened that day back in the Garden of Eden is often referred to as the “Original Sin,” the first time humans “missed the mark” (the meaning of the word “sin”). What if missing the mark wasn’t the transgression itself but the lack of remorse, the failure to take responsibility, apologize, and make amends?
Truly, when I do not take those opportunities in my own life, when I instead try to “pass the buck” in some way, I feel absolutely separate from my divine essence. Indeed, it feels as though I have cast myself out of the beautiful spaciousness and growth that come on the heels of a true and sincere apology. I have banished myself from that Eden.