(…) A sincere and unconditional apology is a rare thing, and difficult to do well. Nevertheless, it is an important skill, and one that needs to be properly understood and then practiced if we are to appreciate its subtle craft. How we make an apology important, but so too are the reasons why we do so, our objectives, and what the apology represents. A definition of the word might be “A formal, public statement of regret acknowledging failings or asking pardon for faults, offence, or error, accompanied by an expression of remorse, sorrow or contrition at having insulted or injured another.” Yes, yes, you retort; I know what the word means. It means I did something wrong so I should apologise. I know well enough when I have done something unworthy, and can console myself with the fact that at least I have the decency to feel bad about it. I must be honest about it, be willing to say sorry, and try to do better in the future. Unfortunately there’s a bit more to it than that.
It is a cliché, though a true one, that to make a mistake is unfortunate but to not learn from it is a tragedy. To expect of ourselves that we will be perfect, or that our lives might be, is an impossibility. Even worse, many of us would shamefully admit that we would knowingly sacrifice as much of the first as was required to ensure the second. Being as this is so, our apologies are often mean-spirited and hesitant, and loaded with self-justification and excuse. Apologising is difficult for many of us because it embarrasses us. It makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. The unwarranted feeling is that we are in some way abasing ourselves and publicly acknowledging that the other is a better person. We are also hesitant to allow them a dangerous advantage over us by knowing our flaws and fallibility.
Therefore we often attempt to slyly involve others in our fault by justifying our behaviour as a reaction to something they did which they themselves should be held accountable for. Other well-known strategies include the following: Attempting to minimise the significance of the insult (“I didn’t mean it”), mollifying the victim (“please don’t be angry”), criticising their reaction (“you’re overreacting”), questioning their response (“what did you expect?”), seeking their approval (“you understand, don’t you?”), appealing for validation (“anyone would have done the same”), offering spurious excuses (“I was tired”), pleading ignorance (“I didn’t know”), attaching blame (“it’s your fault”), avoiding responsibility (“it’s not my fault”), or even denying offence (“I didn’t do anything”). All this, while still supposedly apologising.
What a load of rubbish. In our evasiveness, we often phrase the apology in deliberately vague or obtuse terms, elucidating neither the actual offence nor our appreciation of the exact nature of the affect it has had on the other person. Compounding that offense, we rarely do them the honour of explaining the reasons why we have acted in the way we did. We prefer the motivation and reasoning behind the act to remain opaque and unexplained, therefore protecting ourselves from further exposure and judgement. This is entirely unsatisfactory. If we are going to apologise we should learn to do it properly. It requires a keen and sensitive mind, a generous and compassionate spirit, an honest and open heart, and humility. These qualities are applied in service to coolly assessing our own actions and warmly empathising with another person’s feelings. These are precious skills that require commitment and effort. It is not enough to just apologise; we have to explain what we did, the effect we believe it caused, the reasons for it, and the character flaws and failings which caused us to do so.
Then we have to do something else. We should offer them the consolation of not only asking if there is anything we can do to make up for the injury, but also clearly state our determination to not make such mistakes or act in such a way again in the future. It’s no good acting like an arsehole today and apologising for it if we do the same thing tomorrow, to that person in particular or anyone else. This is the difference between apologising and saying sorry. Sorry is easy; you say “sorry,” and walk away. In many ways it can be as disrespectful as the original insult, which is why they are sometimes rejected as unsatisfactory and inappropriate because it does nothing to make amends for the harm caused. An apology is infinitely more difficult and demanding because it requires the genuine honesty and contrition that an easily said “sorry” does not suggest. Faking it is not an option. It requires consideration and tact in judging the appropriateness, the timing, and the wording of our apology, and it demands fearlessness and generosity. The generosity is an unselfish and determined one. It states that you and your feelings are so important to me that I must make amends for my behaviour, despite my discomfort or what you might subsequently think of me. The fearless courage, also, must be an unconditional one which affirms not only that our failings and wrongs will be openly shared with you, but that we ask only for our amends to be heard, and not that our actions themselves are excused or absolved.
This point poses a question; is a “successful” apology one that by definition must be accepted? I think not, for in its truest form an apology is just that, the act of apologising. No dictionary defines it as being an “amends being granted.” Whether or not our apology will be or is accepted should not dissuade us from making the gesture. It should be impelled only by our need to do so, nothing more. There are no preconditions placed on it that require the other person to respond in a particular way, because to do so would be manipulative in itself. It would use the other person’s injury (which we have caused) as a means to our advantage. Therefore we must be sure that our motives are clear, and that our objectives are honest ones.
Because it is so unselfish, the true value of a genuine apology is in its inclusive nature. We are seeking to reach out and comfort another to whom we have done wrong, despite our flawed humanity. In so doing we may find absolution of sorts for ourselves, some confirmation that we acknowledge the worst of our defects and are willing to overcome them, and wish to live at peace with our world. It guides us towards the understanding that we must be at one with our world and not in opposition to it, and that the architecture of our world as we imagine it must find an accommodation with that of the world as it is for others. It places a premium on synthesising our concept of ourselves with that of the world around us, and appreciating the balance and proportion of all those elements that constitute the cohesive whole. Because of this, the ability to apologise teaches us much about ourselves, our spiritual condition, and our ability to live life.
© andrew wheeler