People live in many ways, in many places, in many times. But they live together and it seems to be a pre-requisite of togetherness that there are rules of behaviour towards those others near you so that you may live as one. The meaning of the word atone (for once an English term!) is linked with that togetherness. It has been on my mind for a while.
Atonement is also linked with morality, although it is more often found in religious texts. If a moral compass is assumed (those behaviour rules that allow us to live together add up to a compass of sorts) then sooner or later, sooner if my life is any indication, there will be a ping of distress from your conscience, an unpleasant feeling to be sure, advising you of a transgression against your fellow humans or other entities that we attribute human traits to (animals, environement).
One thing about your conscience – it has staying power. That unpleasant feeling won’t go away easily, although time, a lot of time, may mute it. So it stays with you and sours your mood and won’t let you enjoy life etc. It is difficult to ignore, too, and you end up wanting to act to neutralize it. That is the way I see atonement, an act that balances things out again. It is not a payment as such, although there are analogies. I say that because sometimes those you have wronged have no idea or are not in a position to demand atonement. It is all in your head 🙂 (well, really, where else would it be?). Payment implies an exchange, too, and atonement is anything but! You atone by your acts, and atonement works on you and for you, not for the entity you have wronged.
But the good thing is that the atonement IS an act. That one is not only in your head. It requires being made manifest. And people love and understand actions a heck of a lot better than, say, ideas or feelings.
So atonement is subjective, actual, temporal. Sometimes it is repetitive. It has a link to the wronged because your conscience will demand it. If you have wronged against the environment, then praying and pilgrimage will probably not make it better, although those acts may have a place depending on your religious affiliation. What will make it better will have to have a link to the environment, say, volunteering to clean up the beach. Or becoming vegetarian. Or planting a forest. You have to give of yourself. If payment is involved, you are making the payment. Your conscience will not be appeased if you get paid for it. It has to be extra to your usual activity (if it is your usual activity, it counts, but you’ll have to do it for a longer time).
If you have wronged a person, you can make it up directly. If that’s not possible, it’s time to get creative: donating to their favourite charity. Being loyal to their family. Learning how to act in the future.
Atonement is intensely personal, but even while you benefit by quieting your conscience, it is really for others, for that is the balance we need, getting back to living with others in a better way. The forest you planted will rarely benefit you, but the oxygen and shade and yummy mushrooms in it may just be enough for someone else to say, later, “ah, that’s better!”