Thought Catalog

In Defense of Apologies​

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The Wandering Faun
The Wandering Faun

The cultural tide seems to have washed away from civility; it no longer seems an important skill to pass down to our children. If civility really were mere politeness or even political correctness, this turn would not only be understandable; it would be commendable. Mere politeness for its own sake isn’t worth half the colossal effort it takes; there isn’t much that’s more icky than linguistically rebranding dire experiences to something more palatable for those who don’t have to undergo it. I think a poor person feels the grind just as deeply whether we call it “destitution” or “economically challenged.” Were I she, in fact, I’d probably feel dismissed and mocked.

But civility is not simply “manners.” It’s not oppression in the name of semantics, either. It is respecting our connectedness and fundamental need for each other, and therefore a joy and honor to pursue developing.

The most sterling way to take responsibility for public life – which is to say life together – is to apologize when you interfere with the flow of life.

Though the purpose of an apology is not to garner forgiveness, the worst kinds of hurts are the ones unacknowledged by the inflictor. Forgiveness is the natural result of tenaciously feeling out all the anger, hurt, fear and pain. That, holding the door open for every last drop of such difficult feelings, is the real work of forgiveness, not the white-knuckled, gritted-teeth shoving down of them in order to nominally claim to have forgiven someone. The longer we refuse to feel our feelings, the deeper they dig into us and the more they stick around.

The art of apologizing is about bearing witness to your own limitedness; an act of humility, yes, but more, a salute to finiteness.

If we were to treat apology making like we were treat art making, we might consider these brushes or chisels or widdles when at the workbench of life as a connect-able being:

“I’m sorry you…” is not the beginning to any genuine apology. Even when it’s isn’t used bitterly but instead to communicate sympathy, cutting it from our liturgy of remorse will force us to be more specific about our feelings.

Let us treat “I’m sorry” as if it were sacred. Let us not us these words to mean ““I want you to think I’m a nice person but can we please just move on and pretend this never happened” but, rather, to mean “I commit to changing this behavior that hurt you.”

Another way to keep “I’m sorry” sacred is to respect ourselves and our worth – both in terms of reciprocity and by virtue of being alive – enough not to grovel.

“I’m the worst friend ever” is not an apology but a way to manipulate the situation in order to receive reassurance; get the wronged party to lift the weight of guilt off of you. Fake groveling is even worse; it’s self-serving and so soils words that should be reserved only for the truest introspection and most fully committed. If you do genuinely feel like the worst friend ever, it’s best to wait until after offering a genuine apology to bring that up.

Finally, “I didn’t mean to” is an unhelpful thing to say. For myself, I assume you didn’t mean to – hurt me, that is, that’s why I’m telling you that you did. If I thought you meant to hurt me, why would I remain in relationship with you? Accepting responsibility is the most important element in an apology and “I didn’t mean to,” rather than facilitates healing or relief, sounds like an attempt to evade the full impact of our actions.

We should aim to become so aware of ourselves and our actions that we won’t need to be chased down or prompted to apologize.

It is not with paranoia but concern for and joy over life in relationship that we should keep account of ourselves as if our lives were checkbook ledgers, and if we notice a deficit, that someone has something against us, we ought to pursue making it right before they feel they have to pursue us. Imagine how many injuries beyond the one(s) we cause our loved ones would find balm if we were this intentional.

In all of this, we should remember that apologies are not to gain forgiveness.

When we receive such, however, we should not forget that forgiveness does not by itself restore or equate to relationship; it is not not by itself enough for trust. This should free us up to offer polished, specific and other-centered apologies without feeling the pressure to fix the relationship. That will happen if and when all feelings are allowed to be felt out to their conclusions; offers of repairs should be made, of course, but only after we take time to craft beautiful and authentic apologies. TC mark

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