The Art of the Apology


Sorry didn’t do it!  You did it!”*

Love means . . . never having to say you’re sorry!”**

I have learned a lot about myself during the past few days.  I have also learned a lot about other people.  One of the things I have learned is that a lot of us really do not what it means to apologize.

When I was a little girl playing with my cousins, there would often be times when one of us would do or say something hurtful to another one of us.  Sometimes, it would be intentional and sometimes it would be unintentional.  When the one who had been hurt sought solace from a parent or an older sibling or cousin, the one who had said or done the hurtful thing would be told to say “I’m sorry.”  The one who had been hurt was expected to accept the apology and then move on and forget what had happened.

Unfortunately, even though we were very young, there were people in our circle who seemed to keep doing and saying mean and hurtful things and who would then offer a perfunctory “I’m sorry” and expect all to be forgiven and forgotten.  As children, we did not understand or know how to handle such behavior so, in an effort to protect ourselves, we started replying “Sorry didn’t do it.  You did it.”  That response captured our frustration and anger at a playmate who was always doing mean and hurtful things.  It was our way of trying to force at that playmate to take responsibility for her or his actions and to stop doing the mean and hurtful things.  When our attempts to do so failed, we would respond to that playmate by saying – “You’re not sorry.  If you were sorry, you would stop doing it.”

Equally as frustrating to us was the playmate who would say “I’m sorry, but …….” and then proceed to give all the reasons why her or his behavior had not really been so bad or to give excuses for his or her behavior.  When faced with that type of behavior, our young minds come not come up with any clever quips.  However, we still recognized that our playmate did not know what it meant to be truly sorry for what he or she had done.

Over the past few days, I have felt the same frustration I felt as a child.  My circle of “playmates” has become much larger and the people within my circle have a wide range of opinions, some of which are diametrically opposed to my opinions.  I do not need or expect or want all of the people within my circle to be carbon copies or clones of me.  I value our divergent opinions and l hope that we learn much from each other.  I also recognize that some of the people within my circle are there for limited reasons and for limited purposes and so my expectations as to their behavior are much lower than the expectations that I have for the ones who I consider to be my friends.

I expect my friends to be in tune with my feelings and to care enough about me to refrain from doing or saying things that will hurt my feelings and cause me pain.  In other words, I expect my friends to be guided by the principle that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  If that principle proves to be unattainable and one of my friends does say or do something that causes me pain, I expect and want her or him to — 1) sincerely apologize for causing the pain; 2) take steps to make amends for the pain; and 3) modify her or his behavior so to keep from doing the SAME THING again.

These past few days have shown me that many of us simply do not know how to do these three things.   Maybe we were forced to say “I’m sorry” too often when we were children.  Maybe we think that an apology shows that we are weak or indecisive.  Whatever the reason, we do not know how to make a sincere apology.  We do not know that a sincere apology simply needs to express our remorse that we did something that caused someone else pain.  A sincere apology does not need to explain why we did it or why we think what we did is not as bad as something someone else did.  A sincere apology certainly does not need to try to minimize the other person’s feelings; it does not need to redirect the discussion from that person’s feelings to something else.  A sincere apology also does not try make someone else understand why you did not understand that your initial actions or inactions were hurtful to her or him.

We also do not know how to make amends for the things we have done.  Admittedly, sometimes it is not easy to make amends. Clearly, if you break or damage a possession of mine (my watch, my phone, my favorite purse, my car), you make amends by paying to have the item repaired or by buying me another one.  If you cause a physical injury to me, you make amends by paying my medical bills.  But, what do you do when the injury is to my spirit or you have betrayed my trust?  There are often no easy answers but I submit that, as my friend, you have to figure it out.

We also seem to be unable to stop doing the same things over and over again. Maybe we have a particular affinity for the offensive behavior.  Maybe we forget how much hurt the things we do and say can cause. Or maybe (just maybe) we are so blinded by our own particular privilege(s) that we cannot comprehend what the world is like for our friends who do not share our privilege(s).  Whatever our reason, we will never be able to be a true friend to someone if we keep hurting them over and over again.  Because, although our human frailties may make it almost impossible to achieve a world where “[l]ove [truly] means never having to say you’re sorry,” we all like to hope that the ones that we call friends will reach a point where they do not have to apologize quite as often.

The past few days have made me wonder if some of us will ever learn these lessons.  I pray that we do.  It did very little to solve our disputes and squabbles or soothe hurt feelings on the playground when, confronted with an insincere apology, a failure to make amends, and a repeat of the same bad behavior, we yelled, “Sorry didn’t do it.  You did it.”  It does even less now that we are adults.

*Heard on numerous playgrounds when I was a child.

**Paraphrase from the movie, Love Story (1970).

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