The Apology

I have been thinking about apologies this week, mostly because I have been feeling a little sorry for myself. Due to the speed of ALS, the physical losses seem to tumble one on the next, so that just when I feel like I am good with the space I currently occupy, a new chasm opens up and down the rabbit hole I go again. And of course, each of these new physical losses is accompanied by regret at the very least, perhaps sorrow or even grieving of sorts. Some of it is hard hitting where I find myself saying somewhat incredulously to my body, “Really, this is where you are heading, really?” Some of it is pretty Minnesotan, “OK, whatever.” All of it lands you on the regret-to-sorrow-to-grief continuum. When you have dis ease, the place you land defines “I’m sorry,” and I have to admit, ALS can really make me grieve.

I accept that dis ease inspires regrets, so it isn’t difficult at all to recognize twinges of conscience over some past action, a past slight, a stupid thing that I know I did. When you are my age, with my past, you could spend 25 hours a day regretting things you have done. I have had to learn not to ride the regret train too often, or life could be one great disingenuous Steve Martin line, “Well excuuuuse me.” From where I sit now, I know how impossible it is for us to grow as human beings without hurting another in some way. As we careen through childhood and adolescence and adulthood, emotional flotsam and jetsam is inevitably left in our wake. But I have also hoped that as these experiences have accrued, I would become more sensitive, more caring, more aware of the difference between hard conversations that proffer change’s new paths albeit discomfiting, and hurtful discussions that leave no room for betterment or growth. And that is what I use as the bellwether for whether I should feel regret.

There are times when an apology is appropriate, especially when the social fabric has been torn either purposely in the name of some supposed greater good, or accidentally due to the insensitivities of the moment. Apologies, if done right, will offer the mending and repair work that is absolutely necessary to move on together. Learning to apologize is complex as our earliest notions about apology come through our parents, and their motives and techniques color our perceptions of the concept, passed on to our own children and grandchildren through our own acts around apology. Some parents see an apology as a way of mending the inevitable damage to familial structures, and they expect the apology to suffice in that endeavor. I think that from such an interpretation, children learn a healthy regret, enough to want to empathize, but not so much as to debilitate them. However, I’ve been a teacher for long enough to know that many parents (and teachers) see an apology as a punitive line in the sand, and this interpretation overlays guilt and shame and resentment on the act of apologizing. That can result in manipulation and inauthenticity if such an interpretation stands unchallenged. If nothing else, the teaching of apology is fraught with danger for how we frame these moments—either authentic or manipulative—frames the act.

How apologies are perceived can also be quite complex. “I’m sorry,” invites all kinds of scrutiny—everything from “Where did that come from;” to “Oh, you don’t need to apologize;” to “You’re damn right you better apologize;” to “Thank you, and I forgive you.” The psychosocial implications go way beyond the apology. Apologies can be manipulated to indicate weakness as in the conservative backlash that took place in Japan when the Emperor first apologized for Japanese atrocities inflicted on the people of Korea, or the inevitable talk-radio response that took place when former President Reagan apologized to the Nisei for their interment during WWII. Of course, apology can be interpreted as a sign of strength too, so that admitting culpability and offering to move on together, changed by the realizations that led to the apology, is indicative of maturity and comfort in one’s own skin. What is clear to me is that apologizing is really only the front end of whether we shall grow and learn from our regret, and that moments of apology can foster great wisdom over time. Of course, they can also result in great denial, self-delusion, and self-serving rationalization. I guess it really does depend on what each of us brings to the apology.

I have to admit that in this time of Facebook, I have been tempted to go back and revisit different times in my life, remaking acquaintances with whom I felt I might really owe an apology but was either too arrogant, or blind or stupid to see it at the time. Mostly, I have resisted such impulses, preferring to think we all have moved on from such dis eased moments. I am puzzled by these urges—that is, why my moments of dis ease have also been accompanied with a strong desire to apologize. And up to this week, my conclusion was that the accompanying anxiety of dis ease inspired strong needs for some stasis in other arenas of my life, hence the need to apologize. On reflection, that seems to me to be pretty self-centered.

All of this leads up to an incredible event this past week. A friend from my childhood reached out to me and apologized for a moment carried for over 40 years. I won’t go into the circumstances, as they would require more than their own blog entry. It was when we were 14, and neither of us had the life experience, nor the life wisdom to truly handle a situation that flummoxed the adults in our spheres, let alone a couple of adolescents. But I think what is more important is what that apology meant to my friend’s life, and probably what it means to mine. Our Facebook back and forth, started so bravely and so vulnerably by my friend and framed by 40 years of accrued living after the fact, was a revelation. And here it is: It is in the apologetic moment, as we seek relief from the regrets and sorrows we carry, that we consciously construct the human beings we wish to become.

This is delicate stuff, requiring incredible balance.

You need sufficient regret or sorrow or grief to disrupt your inertia and cause you to seek centeredness again. But that isn’t enough, and this is what my friend realized. It isn’t the apology. It is the ability to embrace the dis ease, allowing it to shape you into goodness and vulnerability. It is not enough to apologize from your dis ease. You must genuinely wish to bring centeredness to another. If all you want is to feel better yourself, then what you will get will be the diminishing returns of self-serving apology rather than the synergistic growth of seeking another’s betterment. My friend understood this, as the whole point of the outreach was not for my friend to feel better, but to acknowledge the concern that the moment had been hurtful to me, and that hurt carried through, even 40 years later.

See what I mean?

I now realize that sorrow has the potential to be a constant companion for the good. It urges us to be the persons we want to become, not some static, automated emotional grub who cannot recognize the beauty of the currently shared moment except with regret as a past event. This is not something that I could have voiced even last week, but my centeredness was disrupted by an apology, truly heartfelt and other-centered. And that sorrow ultimately helped me understand my own regret and sorrow and grief in ALS.

And for that, I’m not really sorry at all.


7 thoughts on “The Apology

  1. Bruce, I feel as though I am sitting in your classroom as I read all of this and it has given me some great insights into the dynamics of my own family of origin that I have grieved for all my adult life. I know I am going to reread this one several times and maybe even print it out. Thank you for your wisdom. Keeping you and Ev in my prayers too.

  2. You have touched on a subject we all can relate to, Bruce, and I thank you for that. An unresolved hurt is an emotion that can go to the core of our being and can change lives. We all know that “I am sorry” is something we should say more often, but we need a reminder from time to time. And you reminded us, and we thank you for that.


  3. Dear Bruce,

    I’ve been thinking of you and Ev since Easter. I hope your are settledd in and enjoying your lovely new home.

    I opened your blog today and felt you were writing just to me. This week I had two family members goad and shame me into an apology which was quickly rejected and dismissed as insincere. I’ve raged and grieved at the memory of the conversation, and I’ve prayed a lot for understanding and for grace.

    I read your blog and thought of how differently the conversation might have gone had the motivation been different. I think, like Carol, I will have to print it off and re-read it as I consider how I might move forward in a healthy and positive way.

    What a wonderful gift your friend gave to you, and himself, in the sincere apology he gave to you. Thank you for sharing it with us.



  4. Yes, yet no theoretical discourse can change the fact that some people can only accept apologies, but are unwilling to apologize themselves. They consider the act too humbling, too humiliating. In the art of apologizing there should be equality.

  5. Bruce,
    In my twelve step work there is a place for making amends. One of the assumptions of this step is that we are not responsible for the response to the apology, only the honesty of the regret we feel.
    This allowed me to apologize to my ex-wife, even though I suspected I knew what the response would be. She gave the expected response but I did not experience the sting which normally accompanied our conversations. Perhaps there are people who can see into another person’s heart and apologize for the good it will do them. I am not one of those people. All I know is that from the time of my apology to this day, I have felt more empathy for her and our relationship changed for the better, at least for me.
    Thanks for helping me think through the “regret” stuff. Jack

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