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Tiger Woods, Apologies and Martin Buber

February 19, 2010

Today alongside reading Martin Buber in preparation for a speaking engagement, I tuned in to Tiger Woods’ public apology. I was highly skeptical, having grown weary of public apologies recently. But, perhaps enlightened by Buber’s encouragement to remain open to the possibilities of the present moment and encounter, I found myself hoping that Tiger was truly on his way towards healing his guilt.

A long while back I learned the distinction Buber makes between guilt and guilt feelings.  Guilt feelings are really the neurotic kind, a subjective feeling, not the more damaging excursion into interpersonal harm.  Tiger had swerved into what Buber calls “ontic guilt.” For true healing, most people need another to “be sorry”—they don’t just need the words of an apology.  To recover from ontic or existential guilt, you must first have real insight into the irreversibility of your actions that have caused true harm to another.

Buber suggests that reparation of guilt requires confession (and penalty), illumination, perseverance and reconciliation.  How did Tiger do? He absolutely confessed.  Tiger confessed to “entitlement,” to wronging his wife, to letting down his fans, to letting down his Buddhist faith, to letting down his own mother and to parents who had held him out as a role model.  Was there penalty? Tiger admitted himself to a 45 day inpatient treatment program, to be followed by another treatment.  That may the modern-day equivalent of both penance and the search for illumination. Perseverance and reconciliation?  Tiger doesn’t owe us that.  He owes that to his wife, his family, his children and to himself in understanding who he had become. I don’t know what Martin Buber would say, but I’m remaining open to the possibility of true change.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 2:56 am

    Lila B commented on your status:

    “tried to post a comment, but blog wouldn’t let me in..tried twice. anyway, I come at this with absolutely no bias. i am not a golf fan or a fan, one way or the other of Tiger. My initial reaction was like yours; that he hit the necessary notes, took responsibility for his actions, apologized to his wife, kids, friends and fans, especially the families of kids who look to tiger as a role model. I thought he was sincere. Then immediately after the prepared speech, CNN had various “pundits” on who trashed tiger. I thought, did they watch the same person who i just saw? They said he was robotic, that he was reading from a script and that it was all part of a PR plan to rehab his personna so that he could return to golfing and not lose anymore sponsors. I guess time will tell as I do believe that actions are stronger than words and that he will have to prove his worthiness and integrity to his wife and family. I don’t know much about sex addicts, or if he even is one. That he got caught up in the celebrity and his perceived “entitlement” is clear. How one live such a double life and maintains such a pristine reputation for so long, is beyond me. That to me is very troubling….the deceipt. How does one live with himself? Did he really think he could have it all or does he have no capacity to know right from wrong.”

  2. February 20, 2010 2:57 am

    thanks Lila for your very thoughtful comment (I’ll post it for you on the wordpress site).
    Who knows whether CNN pundits are right, or whether there are multiple truths as well as motivations in making his speech. One online pundit, specializing in body language, called his speech, “sincere,” the same body language CNN pundits called robotic. I guess we’re all more accustomed to the smooth, but hardly credible apologies of politicians.
    Take good care,

  3. February 21, 2010 3:52 pm

    The “I” of the Tiger….
    One of Buber’s important contributions was the distinction between an “I-It” relationship and an “I-Thou” one. It’s a little more nuanced than this, but for the s ituation at hand, let’s call the “I-It”relationship more impersonal, more self-protective, more along the spectrum of “looking good.” “I-Thou” would be more personal, more vulnerable…seeing The Other as precious.

    For the short period of time Tiger Woods has been unmasked I think he has done remarkably well, and is doing what he needs to. I, for one, felt a bandwidth of relief when the revelations about him came out…..growing up with parents who were extremely disciplined spiritual and athletic coaches, he had to present himself to the world as Perfection.. Living his life in his presentational self–not his authentic one–had to be a strenuous burden, so it’s not surprising that he’d manage the pain of hiding his humanness with a medicative lifestyle.

    At this stage of the game, to me, the issue of Tiger’s guilt and retribution is still being played out in the world of “It.” It’s not that he’s insincere, but only when he recognizes the real needs of his own vulnerable true Self will he truly be able to offer the kind of apology that would mean something. Only when he understands what he has needed himself in terms of real nourishment, real safety and real respect for who he is–not for what he does–will he be able to repair his relationships and his life. When Tiger Woods moves towards “I-Thou,” it won’t be about guilt or apologies, and it likely won’t be in public. It will be about accepting his ordinariness and his humanness and making retribution because he has learned to empathize.

    Nancy Dreyfus, Psy.D.

    author of Talk To Me Like I’m Someone You Love (Tarcher/Penguin,2010)

  4. February 21, 2010 3:57 pm

    Nancy, Many thanks for expanding on my reference to Martin Buber, and providing such a clear and thoughtful analysis of the likely path that led Tiger Woods to becoming so “entitled,” as he put it. It’s so helpful to recognize the humanity even in the acts that lead one to become “not fully human,”and the long road back.


  1. Apologies, Revenge and Forgiveness « Being Fair In Love and Marriage

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