Yesterday, as I have for the past seven years, I led a Yom Kippur Study Session at Washington Hebrew Congregation. There was a terrific conversation with those in attendance and the discussion wove its way through the prepared remarks. This turned out to be a 90 minute talk without me making it through to the very end of the speech. But I got 90% of the way — the rest of the back-and-forth was so interesting there was no need to return to text. I’ll try to recreate some of the feedback, while sharing the paper.
A special thanks to Rabbi Bruce Lustig at Washington Hebrew for inviting me , and the support of all the WHC clergy who will all take part in the Theater J/WHC “Clergy in Conversation” series, 7 post-performance discussions on our stage. For the complete line-up of “Conversation” dates, go to our Beyond The Stage link.
The talk was listed as “The Drama of Admission: Why Contrition is So Hard” but I could just as easily amend and call it “The Thread of Admission (Or Truth, Reconciliation, and The Law of The Included Middle).” Take your pick.
I began notes for this meditation over the summer, long before rehearsals for our current After The Revolution commenced; before community attention began to coalesce around our latest important offering from Israel, The Admission; before workshopping of the fall show which will premiere in between called The Argument, about a couple who falls in love and then, just as in the other two plays, encounter a revelation—an unexpected learning moment—and find themselves unable to reconcile amid the ensuing fall-out. We’ll be talking about all three plays today. Because each involves the challenge of reckoning with wrong-doing, or with newly revealed facts that alter the foundations of the characters’ moral standing. What are we to do when the assumptions upon which we’ve been nurtured—which have supported and fortified our family—become fractured and a new reality forces redefinition of self and family? Not a disowning of family, mind you, or of community or country, but a change; a reassessing to make a morally acceptable future viable.
My summer drafting of notes on Cape Cod began much less grandly, more innocuously:
“The key to surviving a marriage,” I wrote, “is the ability to say ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s a tautology, so forgive the simplistic formulation, but it also happens to be true. It’s how two people who must learn to co-exist and share resources and a slew of common interests wind up being able to tolerate each others’ differences, even after years of seeming compatibility. Disagreements do ensue; mistakes are made. The only way to survive is by saying ‘I’m sorry.'”
But sorry for what? There are apologies that avoid admissions of wrong doing… “Sorry for disappointing” … “Sorry you’re upset” … “Sorry you’re having trouble sleeping at night” … which is quite different than saying, “Sorry that I snore.” The first is an acknowledgment of another’s situation. The latter an admission of one’s own complicity; one’s own responsibility for another person’s distress… So it’s atonement, up to a point. Admitting that one snores is really just a first step in following through on the mandate of admission.
There are a variety of responses that arise when confronted with the surprising information that, after decades of tranquil nights sharing a bed, you are now creating nightly disturbances, right? What are the most authentic expressions of responsibility in response to such a revelation?
1) “I do not sore.” (sounds authentic to me… as in Authentic Denial! — with not a whole lot of responsibility going on…)
2) “I’m sorry that you think I snore. Now goodnight.”
3) “I admit that I snore. Fine. Goodnight.”
4) “I admit that I snore and I’m sorry (and I’ll try those Breathe Strips until they run out, and we’ll see but they don’t really work; I’m just warning you.)”
5) “I may or may not snore, but the fact is I am frequently congested, either from sinus cold or allergy, and there’s nothing much good over-the-counter so what are you complaining about, and besides, I’m not the only one; you do too—only I don’t say anything, only now I just did.”
6) “I admit that I snore and I’m going to do something about it because it distresses you about which I am very sorry.”
What’s the most complete expression of responsibility?
Well, #6, of course, and it’s a mouthful, but not as much as a mouthful as the prevaricating, rationalizing and retaliatory accusation attendant to #5. To be defensive is to be truly exercised, and it takes the most time; one digs the biggest rut; and one becomes truly stuck in the morass of self-justification; and the problem remains. Although maybe the earlier expressions (#2 and #3), with their curt closing down of conversation are even worse! “Now goodnight! I’m not talking.” Maybe 5 has its charms; as in honesty.
So there are all these gradations between apologies, admissions, atonements, confessions, contrition…
Admitting is different than confessing. Confessing implies guilt.
You can admit without apologizing or expressing remorse.
And there are differences between expressions uttered in the singular vs. expressions uttered in plural.
Does admitting collectively let one off the hook personally? Do we stand together to hide behind another? Or do we find kinship and take mutual responsibility for social ills; for public ignorance; for scourges that implicate all of us, even if we can rationalize that personally, “we’re not guilty of racism, or classism, or neglect of the environment.” But collectively, we may well be?
And so implicated and accountable we might offer to finally recognize another people’s plight; consider reparations for unspeakable suffering inflicted; we’re speaking of the actions taken in the name of Collective Responsibility. In this way we come to see admissions as both deeply personal, and inherently political as well.
And yet when a group of people contemplate an apology to another group, it can become much more fraught than when proffered individually.
A question for the group: Can we give examples of countries who have been compelled to apologize? To acknowledge a wrong doing? Apology between peoples can connote weakness. We generally insist on asserting our pride; our rightness. What are the forces that compel a citizenry to step forward and make such admission?
There are apologies from positions of weakness (“we lost the war, we atone for our barbarism”); or from positions of strength (“we settled the frontier to become the greatest nation on earth; here is your tribal reservation and casino”).
The group gives examples from American history of apologies made:
• To Japanese Americans interred during WWII
• To Vietnamese who were scarred from the dropping of Agent Orange during the Viet Nam War…
Has America every apologized to Native Americans?
To African-Americans for slavery?
Are there other instances when a community or country has refused; balked at the notion of admitting guilt; or seeking apology; or paying reparations? Who makes such admissions? People with power, or people without?
We give examples of the vanquished:
• Japanese Emperor Hirohito accepting terms of surrender, famously bowing and issuing his war apology statement.
• German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Holocaust Apology
I’m interested in looking at those instances when it’s difficult to admit or concede; when apologies do not suffice (and are not asked for); when we are uncertain about how to redress, repair, reconcile or atone.
I want to look at this behavior through the lens of drama—because it allows us to talk reflexively about both the personal and the political in equally consequential manners. The personal in fact trumps the political for immediacy on stage, and supplies tremendous complexity and nuance to which we can respond viscerally, emotionally. And yet the stage is extraordinary because we also understand that the abstraction–the fiction we are seeing—is a symbol—a miniature representation of reality into which we can read larger meanings. With broader public implications.
In three plays at Theater J, we’re looking at the politics of admission & contrition, of stubbornness & compromise; acceptance & forgiveness… in short, questions of empathy… its limits; its importance. How sometimes it is successfully achieved, and oppositional points of view are integrated, and conflict ameliorated. Whereas other times that same synthesis is illusive; and peaceful resolution left in doubt.
Sometimes a difference of will—a disagreement over a decision—can result in a scorched earth crusade that resonates with political meaning. Such will be the case at Theater J next month, with a newly updated version of a blistering Off-Broadway one-act called The Argument by Alexandra Gersten-Vassileros which The New Yorker “Sharp, powerful, Witty and well observed.”
It tells the story of Sophie (Susan Rome, who plays the step-mother Mel in After the Revolution) and Phillip (James Whalen), 43 and 48 respectively, who joyously and unexpectedly find love later in life. But their new relationship is rocked when Sophie learns she is pregnant. Phillip, a successful businessman and divorcee, wants the child. Sophie, a more emerging yet highly dedicated artist committed to the process of creation through her artwork, only does not. They discuss. They dig in their heels. They go to a therapist, and midway through what should be a healing process following the principles of Harville Hendricks’ Imago technique, which is often described to couples as “compassion in action,” things go off the rails. Now Imago teaches a way of communicating with your partner about what really matters in your intimate relationships — what you need to feel loved, cared for, connected, and safe. Herb, as we will see is, ever hopeful that teaching couples this therapeutic paradigm will win the day.
“In this play every moment is filled with a sense of need,” says director Shirley Serotsky. “Both characters believe they are fighting the good fight, for love, for their future together and for happiness. We want an audience to care for and identify with both of them.”
And yet, in this play people say they’re sorry, even while pressing ahead with their own agenda. Their side of the argument must be won. Losing is not an option.
And so the therapist’s office: Herb is trying to open up a shut-down Phillip who has tried to express himself only to stop and say, “Never mind” (which is sort of the equivalent of saying “Now goodnight.”) Sophie’s upset.
Bear with me. It’s a process. Sophie has just told you she’s afraid of losing you. Did you hear her?
(To Sophie, who’s crying)
There’s tissue right there behind you, Sophie. Did you hear what she said, Phillip? Ok. Now, Phillip, can you complete this sentence: ‘It makes sense to me that you would feel scared of losing me when I say “never mind” because’-
It doesn’t make sense to me.
It doesn’t make sense to you??
But for the purpose of the exercise, Phillip, give this a try. “It makes sense to me, Sophie, because-”
Um. It makes sense to me because, uh, because when I say “never mind” you interpret that as a sign of intractability, irritation and abandonment.
Yes! Exactly! That’s exactly right!!
That’s exactly what I’m feeling.
That was great. Not so hard, was it?
Not hard. Just long.
Until we get it under our belts the process may feel mechanical, but look at Sophie’s face. How it’s softened. You have just validated her experience of what you said. And that is loving and that warms the relationship and allows each person to balance or hold the argument, do you see, without needing to win it, and that simple generosity makes us each more flexible, and more available to encourage new ideas, new tendencies in one another; which is the fundamental purpose of relationships anyway and the only way to save the whole frickin’ world as far as I’m concerned.
Is it my turn yet?
Yes. Yes it is.
Well, I feel, uh, I feel very angry and this whole thing, frankly, is making me even angrier.
Hmm. Take a deep breath, Sophie. Can you repeat What Phillip just said, verbatim reporting, nothing more.
What I heard you say is that you are feeling angry and that this is making you feel even angrier.
Did she get that?
Want to add anything to that?
Step 2. Sophie, complete this sentence: “It makes sense to me, Phillip, that you are feeling angrier and angrier because-”
It makes sense to me, Phillip, that you are feeling angry and that you are getting even angrier because… we haven’t even gotten down to the issue that brought us here in the first place.
Very good. She got that. I’m your relationship and your relationship is feeling safe and attended to, right? Step 3, and I really want you to use your imagination here, try to be generous. Sophie, complete this sentence: “I can imagine, Phillip, that you are feeling-”
Um, I can can imagine that you are feeling… frustrated, beyond belief, and frightened that you won’t, we won’t have enough time to figure all this out – I mean, if the last ten minutes is any indication of how long this process could take –we’d haven’t got the time – I mean I’d have to go and have the abortion before we actually got round to agreeing on an amicable solution!
Philip does a double take. It’s the first time he’s heard that word. Abortion. He really had no idea that that’s what Sophie was planning to spring on him. He wants this baby. Sophie doesn’t. And all bets are off!
And poor Herb, the therapist? The rabbi? The healer…?
“I wanted to see how or if two people who say they love each other so much, who are fighting over something so inarguably precious, could find their way out of war and back to the love that brought them together in the first place,” says Gersten-Vassilaros.
Can they find release from the Gordian knot of conflict? Can one truly be fully able to oneself in another’s position. Can a compromise be brokered? Can opposing positions be assimilated?
And a last question for discussion: How is The Argument a Theater J play? It seems that the ferocious divide that opens up between Sophie and Philip has become, alas, a familiar one to us in the Jewish community where a point or principle of disagreement may arise and, with alarming speed, serves to turn kindred spirits into mortal combatants. Close allies, unified by so much, wind up turning on each other with heart-breaking ferocity. So there is a metaphor at play here. A private dispute between a domestic partnership winds up speaking for a larger public drama gripping our nation and, indeed, the Jewish community at large. Furthermore, American culture’s been very quiet—which is to say timid, or reluctant—about engaging the public in the abortion debate. It’s just too divisive. So Hollywood’s shied away. So has the theater. This is our way of engaging in a terribly important issue that carries with it a crying need to ameliorate the scorched earth that’s been wrought by this conflict.
But as always in drama, we return to the individual behavior. There is the failure to reconcile. A failure to find common ground. To achieve empathy of any sort beyond the superficial therapeutic cant.
Is there a middle way? Miraculously, our playwright has a notion in mind. Will Phillip accept it?
Find out this fall.
(to be continued…)