“ When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered. That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.
– Tyler G. Okimoto, researcher at the University of Queensland
Friends and I have been discussing the above quote and NPR feature on apologizing. The resulting discussion prompted me to write about apologies and forgiveness. I invite you to read the linked article and respond on my blog, on my Facebook Page, or in an email.
This is Just to Say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold”
― William Carlos Williams
In the spring of the first year of my second marriage, I failed to pay our light bill. The consequences are unforgettable. The utility company cut off our electricity and stuck a notice to our front door. Herb came home from work at 3 o’clock to find the garage door wouldn’t open, the computer wouldn’t power up, and the bathroom light wouldn’t switch on. Since he had come in the back door, he missed the notice on the front door. Thinking a transformer had blown, he called the utility company.
While Herb was discovering we didn’t have any electricity and then driving to the utility company to pay the bill, I was leading a curriculum workshop for 70 faculty members at Warren East High School in the school cafeteria. Floor to ceiling glass covered one cafeteria wall. Around 5 o’clock someone told me Herb was outside in the hallway. I saw him through the glass. He was pacing back and forth and slapping a piece of paper against his thigh. He was mad as hell!
For two months, at school and home, I’d been buried in paper. I’d taken on too many responsibilities, had moved professional priorities ahead of domestic ones, and neglected our finances. The light bills got lost in the shuffle.
I apologized, but the apology felt inadequate. The cliche “I felt like a worm” is apt. A silence descended upon our happy home. I avoided his eyes and spent the evening sorting through every stack of paper in my study. I feared another bill might have slipped my attention. Besides, I needed something to do while I nursed my guilt.
In this case my apology needed to be linked to solutions. I wanted to feel forgiven, but I also needed to fix the problem. Herb began sorting the mail for us and filing the bills, a job he’s done perfectly for twenty-one years. I eventually resigned from my curriculum duties and reduced my professional load. When online bill paying became available, I quickly signed on.
What if I had said, “I’ll fix it,” but never apologized? According to Tyler Okomoto my self -esteem would have been enhanced by thinking, “I’m NOT sorry,” and further enhanced by not saying, “I’m sorry.”
I used to tell my children, “Don’t apologize; fix the problem.” I believed that apologies without solutions were wasted rhetoric.
If their grades dropped, I expected a nose to the grindstone solution. If one of them missed a curfew, I expected a show of sacrifice: every evening at home for a week. Penitence was more important than apologies.
Today, if my husband loses his temper with me, I expect him to apologize, but he’s a fixer. “I’ll take care of it,” he says. And he does.
One of my dear friends, now gone, always said to me, “Forgiveness was forgetting.” She convinced me by her actions and words that whatever wrong had passed between us was completely forgotten. I can’t begin to tell you how comforting her approach was to me, the master of ruminating remorse.
Another friend mastered the fine art of communicating with only our best selves, so much so that I rarely felt any apologies were necessary. I’d always wished she hadn’t told me about her breast cancer at a restaurant. The roar of customer voices felt like a tsunami wave in my head. I felt like ice water had been poured over me. I couldn’t swallow. I became dizzy and nauseous. But I never let on. I didn’t want her to feel as if she needed to apologize. I learned later that she had tried to tell me her diagnosis in other settings, but I was immersed in the business of divorce and not tuned to her needs. She preempted my apology with her understanding.
However, as I’ve aged, I’ve encountered situations that cannot be easily understood or repaired. The solutions seem obscure or may require cooperation from another person. What if someone apologizes for words misspoken or for unkind or rude behavior, but the situation fails to heal? Or what if I apologize but don’t feel forgiven? I am at a loss when this happens, dumbstruck. I feel responsible for the healing and frustrated when my efforts fail.
Here’s where an ironic loop happens: We might feel inadequate because we had apparently failed with convincing forgiveness or apology, unlike my friend who led me to believe all was forgotten. We might fail at accepting a dear one’s foibles, unlike my friend who understood and forgave my preoccupations before I was aware of any slights. We might suffer from so much guilt, we cannot free ourselves even with an apology. We might harbor hidden resentments and fears. Or we might not know the words to say and simply choke.
In loving others we want to be strong and humble, unselfish and kind, sympathetic and generous, reliable and consistent. We fail often. How much should we apologize for our preoccupations and inadequacies?
A steady stream of I’m sorry seems weird, don’t you think?
And yet, I watched a simple apology between two friends that completely defused a potential argument when he said to her, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the situation.” Suddenly she felt badly for him; he was so earnest.
She also does a believable job of apologizing. She’s self-deprecating, witty, and sincere. In apologizing to me, she’s caused me to want to comfort and reassure her. I can’t bear for her to be sad or to feel guilty.
We have lots of help on the topic of apologizing. A google search on Barnes and Noble’s website produced over 3,000 titles with the word apology in them, including various versions of Plato’s Apology, Mitt Romney’s No Apology: Believe in America, Tony Danza’s I’d like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, and Gary Chapman’s and Jennifer Thomas’ The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships.
The topic is ancient and ever fresh.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
― Plato, The Republic
Matthew 6:12: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”
― Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers
“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
― Mother Teresa
1 Corinthians 13:4-8: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.”
“True forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.”
― Oprah Winfrey
“Never forget the nine most important words of any family-
I love you.
You are beautiful.
Please forgive me.”
― H. Jackson Brown Jr. From Life’s little Instruction Book
If you stayed with this post and reached these last lines, you’ve reached the essential core beneath all of my thoughts: