I grew up reading popular literature about how a sorry is so hard to say, an apology so difficult to make. But even in the face of that, apologise we must. Set egotism aside, put pride away and apologise with love and humility. Great advice, except that, personally, I’ve never found it difficult to say sorry. To strangers for knocking them over or to those I love for hurting them. Maybe because I screwed up so often. Maybe because I didn’t think it took away anything from me to say sorry. Maybe because all that mattered to me was reconciliation and peace. Whatever the reason, an apology had never been a problem.
But time goes on, and then you grow up and you realise the weight of an apology. You realise to most people it means you won’t do again the thing for which you apologised. For others, it means you respect them. For one reason or another, I noticed I was making sincere apologies to people I loved and down the line, repeating the action that hurt them. It was then I realised I was apologising for hurting those people, not necessarily for the act itself. Some were within my control, others were the twisted result of my lack of it. But in very few cases did I actually feel bad about the act itself. What worried me was that I had hurt someone. I thought, well, this is good, I am genuinely apologising for the hurt I caused, it means I care, it means I continue to live in my own image of a loving, caring person. And so, subconsciously, I let myself off the hook, believing I was doing the right thing by apologising for hurting people, patting myself on the back for making the fine distinction. Oh, lovely hindsight.
Then you grow up some more. You grow up and suddenly, you’re being hard done by. Perhaps that was always the case, but when you’re younger, you’re quicker to forgive, to let go, to understand and give room. And the apologies are coming your way. The things that hurt you, and the things that were offered apologies for are being repeated. Someone else was now being you. And someone else was offering you the same distinctive apology that you had been offering others. An empty, meaningless mollification that fooled you and the other person into believing that it really mattered to you that they were hurt.
What, then, was an apology, I started to ask myself. What if I was doing the right thing, and as a consequence, hurt someone I love? What kind of apology do I tender then? And what responsibility did the apology put on me, if I did find a way to apologise? Who in my life deserved apologies that, when offered, would bind me to a lifelong responsibility? How much of myself could I preserve by sticking steadfast to the ramifications of the apology?
As with all things that confuse me, agitate me, I figured what I decided about an apology was what it was going to be. For me, an apology has meant to fix the situation as best as I could. I say the words, I undo the things that can be undone, and work bloody hard to make up for the things that can’t. I find I am fairly unpredictable, and not in the most charming of ways, so I carefully avoid the inclusion of, “This won’t happen again.” I realise it is a cop-out and that that is me giving myself room for the things that I have, in my opinion, little or no control over. Dangerous, skiddy situations where I may resolve to not screw up, but invariably do. An apology to me, then, was a firm and solemn promise to do anything from that moment on to make the situation a little less hurtful, to make the other person genuinely believe and feel that she or he was special, and important to me. That, really, is the key to my definition of an apology. To introduce, remind and reinforce the fact that the person who was wronged is indeed integral to my life, that I care about the person. Because, you see, that’s what I’d like to know when an apology is acted out: that yes, someone screwed up and will make things better. So that the next time it happens, I know and can trust the promise of the effort to make it better. I like to think it is what I do.
Which brings me to the modern apology. my pet peeve. More and more I hear apologies that sound like this: “I am sorry I hurt you, I acknowledge that you’re hurt BUT this, this and this is why I did it. And if you can’t understand that, there’s no point in explaining further.” To me, this negates the entire apology. Why am I being told why it was done at the moment where I am too hurt to process this? Isn’t that a different conversation for a time when emotions are sorted, when the hurt subsides a little, when love and support are reinstated as protection devices? To me, an apology with a “but” is no apology at all. Furthermore, it makes me, or the receiver, feel petty and like a fool for feeling hurt in the first place. Because, you see, we place logic and reason so high up in the way we are supposed to process things that when something is explained according what the offender finds reasonable, it appeals to us, overriding what we are feeling. Emotions are just as important, no? If you were to act by logic alone, all of the time, where is the space to love and cherish?
Adding insult to an injury by explaining your reasons while you tender an apology dimishes greatly the experiences that the person one has hurt is feeling. If not outright invalidating that persons’s upset, definitely cutting it down to borderline silliness, wherein that person feels like they overreacted. In a true apology, there’s no place for reason, there isn’t place for explaining. There isn’t also any place for a “this is it, I gave you an apology and you must accept it because it is heartfelt.” What are these but words? A righteousness that slips into an apology is far more damaging, I feel, than no apology at all.
Accepting an apology, too, is fraught with threads of greys. Accepting an apology immediately is a graceful thing to do but what if, in that moment, there is no grace in you to give? So now, you’re not only hurt but also seen as petulant and ungracious; and in most relationships where important apologies occur, the receiver knows that this is how they’re being perceived. To insist on accepting an apology, when the hurt is too great, or the incident too close, is yet another burden the giver of an apology places on the receiver. In return, the receiver places the burden of guilt, and subsequently, anger on the giver. I try and limit myself to a heartfelt apology and the promise of making something better. Acceptance, while it may ease my conscience immediately, is something I know will come in time. Because, by the time you reach my age, the ripe old age of 34, there are very few conflicts by which you lose a person to the lack of an apology. Most people you’ve built your life around, or are in your immediate circle of fellowship, are those you want in your life even if there is no immediate apology or acceptance of an apology. We talk things through, and eventually an apology comes or is accepted. It is why we are adults.
I can’t apologise for my future mistakes, but I can do my darnedest to fix my current ones. In essence, an apology to me is a promise of upholding love and respect for the person you are engaged in conflict with. And that promise is long-standing, firm; to be reviewed and reminded of when the goig gets tough so that the person who is likely to be hurt the next time (as much as you’d like to avoid it) is sure that it isn’t just words that came to them the last time, that there is a promise that will follow to meaningfully make it up to that person.
Unless of course you’ve broken their phone or lost their pictures. Then just go into hiding.