Last week I had a small though frustrating incident with another person that made me think about what it means to ask for forgiveness. The details of the incident are irrelevant because, largely speaking, they are first world problems that did no permanent damage to me and are ultimately insignificant in the brushstrokes of time. The apology consisted of this: I’m sorry, but…. I’m sorry that I did this thing that caused you trouble and frustration, but it was actually someone else’s fault because they made me do it. Now, as I am typing this, I’m tempted to put that phrase in little quotation marks as though quoting this individual alone but it seems only fair to say not only do we all do this at some point, I know I have done this, too. I’m not happy about saying that because it is the cold hard truth. Often, I will use the phrase with sarcasm, such as: I’m sorry you are upset about something petty in your life but the world does go on. This sort of “I’m sorry, but…” is not so much an apology as it is a parody of “I’m sorry things are this way for you.” I say parody because I’m actually being sarcastic. However, I know I, as probably all of us, have used the phrase *“I’m sorry, but” in a contrived apologetic manner. This exchange last week has actually been a wonderful opportunity for me because it has brought all of that (that is to say all that faux apology stuff that I do, too, and really don’t want to do any more) to mind and it has reminded me of a very significant act of apology which was given to me many years ago.
One totally random day over a decade ago, I received a hand written letter of apology from a woman who had once been a girl who assisted in making my school years a misery of teasing, betrayal, and outcast status. She wasn’t the big bully who had picked on me, not any of the big bullies actually, but she was probably one step less obvious and more poisonous. She had been my friend. She had been one of those girls who acted like a friend only to turn on you when the cool kids were around. Since I knew her nearly all of my public school life and was a sucker who was desperate for a friend, she had many opportunities to do this kind of thing over and over again. There were other things, too, but this is the general category and gives the flavor cruelty I experienced.
The letter was a genuine, simple, complete apology. She enumerated in a general and concise way that still showed she was apologizing for specific events as well as an overall falseness in relationship. While I am certain that there were reasons why she did what she did that most likely involved pain on her part which ended up redirected at me rather than at who or what had harmed her, she did not make excuses or give mitigating reasons for her actions. She simply said: I did this, I regret it, I am sorry. Now that is an apology! That is an attempt at what a genuine reconciliation can look like. She didn’t seek to make me feel sorry for her or let go of hurt and anger because I could, through some rendering of her own tortured heart, identify that her suffering was greater than my own and excuse rather than forgive her treatment of me.
Excusing a behavior is when I have a headache and snap at my secretary and then, realizing what I did and why, I return to her office and say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I have a headache.” This is acceptable because the slight shown my secretary was impolite or rude, not personal, long lasting, or more than a single isolated event. The desire on my part is to be excused of the rude behavior not because she will feel sorry for me but because she, too, knows what it’s like to be grumpy with a headache. This is fine when there has been a small slight, an impolite moment, but when there have been trespasses upon another in such a way as to fray or damage a relationship or, worse still, deeply harm or reshape another person altogether, this is not appropriate. When we have deeply harmed another, there is a genuine wound present which we caused and there is no amount of “but”, either spoken or implied in a litany of describing perceived justifications, that can close that wound in them.
Here’s why I believe this is true. First, actions done to you by others do not justify actions you do to someone else. They may have a cause and effect relationship of some sort, but the first does not make it right (that is, justify) what you have done to another. Second, it denies the person whom you have wronged the ability to ask the question that hums through the heart of most of us when we’ve been harmed: why? It is important that a wronged party have the chance to ask the question rather than have the answer thrust down their throat and, once again, being trespassed upon. It also denies them the right to say they don’t care why; and they have that right. Regardless of how much we may wish to give reasons why we did what we did, it is better to wait, hold out the hand palm up, so to speak, and wait for the engagement of the other, giving them the option to ask and engage us. Or not.
It is likely that a desire to answer the “why” question is sometimes a motivator in our over explaining apologies. As children, we are often told to explain our actions and it becomes an anticipated part of conversations when we are “in trouble” with authority. Additionally, we have most likely experienced the “why” question welling up from one of our own wounds and may be trying to satisfy our own need for answers by doing what those who have harmed us will not. However, I suspect that ultimately we hope to turn the other person’s anger, resentment, or hurt into sympathy for us. Like the wild animal that attacks the hand giving a kind gesture and only does so because it is wounded, we want the person we attacked to see us as a victim, too. But unless the action was a mere isolated act of rudeness or unless you are nothing more than a wild animal, this sort of behavior is inappropriate. In truth, it can become a sort of passive-aggressive suffering one-upmanship designed, albeit potentially subconsciously, to make the other person apologize to YOU for not realizing YOUR deeper pain.
And yet if we wait for the “why” question, all the context information we want so desperately to impart becomes not the reason to be excused that we wish it to be but is a response to the other person’s need. That is the beginning of rebuilding and of reconciliation. The person harmed must be given the space to ask their questions and the choice whether or not to ask them at all. This empowers them and begins to restore to them the power they had lost to the one who harmed them. It isn’t by any means, the whole of reconciliation and healing, but it is a move in that direction and it opens the door to it in a way that all our vehement self-justification never could.
So here are some final thoughts I have on apology, both for myself as much as for anyone else. If you are seeking forgiveness for something and find yourself ready to give a laundry list of reasons why you did what you did, stop and think about what you’re really doing.
- Are you afraid they won’t forgive you? Yes, they might not forgive you, but do it anyway. Apologize because it is the right thing for you to do and refrain from passing judgment on what the other person will or will not do. It is not your place to do this.
- Are you afraid you won’t get to share your side of the experience or is there forgiveness the other person should also be seeking from you, too? Well, you might not get to say anything more, but then again it is likely you will. It will be more beneficial to everyone including yourself if you wait for the “why” questions. After the “why”s, dialog is open and you may be able to talk about other issues as well.
- Are you trying to manipulate someone else? Apologies are a cheap and ugly form of emotional manipulation if you are actually not seeking forgiveness and resolution. So don’t do it. Ever. It is truly deeply a lie to do so.
- Are you hurting from the wounds inflicted by someone else that have been motivators for you to hurt the one you wish to apologize to? Remember you are not a wild animal and you are responsible for your own actions. This does not mean you have to beat yourself up eternally for something you did because of your own wounds, but it does mean you need help. So get it. And remember that it is not the fault of anyone you’ve harmed and all the sympathy that they possess cannot heal YOU. They are entitled to their “why” moment just as you are, so make a genuine apology and wait for their “why” and if it doesn’t come that is just fine. But do not wait to get help with your own wounds.
- Are you afraid to admit you were wrong and you screwed up? Join the club! So is the rest of the human race, so know you’re in good company and be honest with yourself and the person you’ve hurt. Own up to it, apologize, don’t say but, and move on.
So what happened to the girl from my childhood who wrote that letter of apology? Actually, I don’t know. I do not know where she is or what she’s doing. I never asked the “why” question because honestly as a grown up I knew why; at least in that general sense of human beings passing along the hurt others have committed and doing things they regret. That is enough for me. I think of this letter every time I need to apologize for something and it is my prayer I will do it with the same sincerity and vulnerability that she did. Her apology was a gift to me, not just because it acknowledged what it did, but also because it has become for me a benchmark of the first steps in reconciliation with others.
*Somewhere a long time ago I read an interesting thing about the word but. It stands for Behold the Undeniable Truth. I’d like to visit my grandmother but it’s raining outside. I’d like to visit my grandmother, behold the undeniable truth, I don’t want to bad enough to put on a raincoat. You get the picture. It is a quite reasonable word to use, but it is important to think about whether or not we’re just saying a nice platitude to cover for what we really feel.