As the Jewish Day of Atonement approaches, people are asking each other, and praying to God, for forgiveness. This provides an opportunity to consider the terms "repentance" and "atonement".
If you do something wrong, this is either something you knew was wrong and still did anyway, or something you did by mistake or without realizing the consequences. In both cases, it is possible to learn from this wrong action.
Repentance seems to me like an easy option. It makes you feel better, without obliging you to change. People can get into cycles of doing wrong and then repenting, like an alcoholic who keeps promising to quit, or a wife-beater who keeps apologizing and declaring his love for his victim. People also tend to forgive quite easily, as this also feels good and righteous.
It is not enough to say you are sorry, or even feel genuine repentance for what you have done. The past cannot be changed, even by having a different perspective on it. What can be changed is the present and the future. If you become aware of something you have done wrong, the most important thing is never to do it again, and to try to make up for it in some way. This is where atonement comes in.
The process of atonement is part of the general process of self-improvement we should all be undertaking continuously throughout our lives. If being a good person is not top of your list of life targets, perhaps it is time to reconsider! What could be more important than being good? I believe that happiness stems from goodness, and that if everyone was good, everyone would be a lot happier. We would live in a better society. Every good action contributes to the general good, and every bad action detracts from it.
When people do wrong, they do so because they see some advantage to themselves in the wrong action. This is often a very selfish and short-sighted approach, and they fail to see the greater advantage in doing the right thing.
In order to become a better person, it is necessary to think about what is good, and to want to do good. We have to consider ourselves within the context of our society, and not do to others what we wouldn't want done to us. We have to overcome weakness and temptation. We have to find good role models to imitate, whose actions can become an internal guide for our behaviour.
None of this is new. It is fundamental in every system of ethics and every religion. My message to the world is: Don't just say you're sorry, become a better person.