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I Erred

A recently published book offers a thoughtful psychological analysis of a common human characteristic. In "Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" (Harcourt, 2007), psychologist Carol Tarvis and professor of psychology Elliot Aronson examine why people tend to rationalize their mistakes and bad decisions. Regardless of how disastrous the outcome, people will often argue that the course of action they chose was the best they could have done at the time.

According to Tarvis and Aronson, our irrational tendency to justify our own actions and beliefs, regardless of how erroneous, stems from cognitive dissonance. As they define it, cognitive dissonance results whenever someone holds two conflicting beliefs that cannot be reconciled. Belief #1: My action resulted in a catastrophic outcome. Belief #2: I am an intelligent and capable person who does not make these kinds of mistakes.

Cognitive dissonance leads to psychological distress, sometimes slight and sometimes more severe. As an attempt to ease this distress, people turn to self-justification. They will offer all sorts of convoluted rationales for why they had to act as they did, to escape the simplest and most logical conclusion: In this particular instance, they erred.

There is another option, of course, which is to own up to the mistake, apologize for it and rectify it. Why people rarely avail themselves of this option is a mystery, especially since, as Tarvis and Aronson point out, one's stature usually rises after admitting to a mistake. We tend to respect people more when they acknowledge a mistake rather than engage in endless cover-up, especially when the mistake is obvious to everyone.

One doesn't need to be a professor of psychology to understand this point. Admitting our wrongdoings is a daily habit for the observant Jew. Twice a day, in the morning and afternoon prayer, and once in the evening before bed, we recite the confession, owning up to our sins and asking for G-d's forgiveness. Without excuses or self-justification, but with simple resolve not to repeat the error, and with trust in G-d that He will accept our teshuvah.

Even on Yom Kippur, G-d will not accept our teshuvah for sins that are between man and man, unless we asked our friend's forgiveness first.

A habit of daily teshuvah relieves one of the stress of cognitive dissonance, and allows one to greet each new day on a note of optimism and joy. Admitting your errors is not pleasant; however, it can be cathartic to relieve oneself of guilt and move forward. This is the essence of the teshuvah process.

Teshuvah is a state of personal redemption, freeing oneself from past errors and misjudgments. The personal moments of teshuvah of many individuals join together and lead the entire world forward towards the complete and final Redemption.



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