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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Apology vs. Explanation

I feel the need to preface this, because confession/penance/forgiveness/apologies/reconciliation (need I go on) are ever-changing, fluid topics of research and conversation for me.  As I pause to write this very non-academic post, I am concurrently working on the prospectus for my dissertation, which will also delve into this topic, because it just will not let me go.  But I’m not coming at this from the perspective of an aspiring expert today.  No, I’m coming at it from the perspective of a fairly exhausted mama of tweens, teens, and young adults, the morning after the National Quiz, with a new puppy sleeping near my feet, even though he won’t let me sleep any longer, on this Saturday morning.  If you’re looking for some of my best theological writing, please (I reiterate, please) go look somewhere else.   

But also… as I began to put this piece together in my mind, it occurred to me that judgments could easily be made about my positions.  Things like, “This doesn’t sound like the Lisa I knew in 1987 or, “L, I don’t think that’s what you would have said in 2015,” or, “Mom, this doesn’t square with who you were last year.”  Well, thank goodness!  One of the beautiful things about being human is we have the ability to change and adapt and grow.  Here’s to hoping that change is for the better.

Something I have been thinking about a lot, lately (in the past week but also over the past several years) is the way we are so often “sorry.” 

I’m sorry I ate the last cookie.

I’m sorry I can’t come in to work today.

I’m sorry your feelings were hurt when you didn’t understand what I said.

I’m sorry you feel that way, at all.

I’m sorry I feel this way.

I’m sorry I stepped on your toe.

I’m sorry I yelled at you.

I’m sorry for what I said when I yelled at you.

I’m sorry I ever met you.

I’m sorry your mom died.

I’m sorry I can’t help.

I’m sorry I’m taking up so much space.

The list goes on… and on… and on… and it is already nuanced before we say another single word.  And yet, we often say the next word anyway, to clarify… to explain… to soften the blow… because we can’t shut up… for whatever reason.

I’m sorry I ate the last cookie, BUT you had more than me yesterday.

I’m sorry I can’t come in to work today, BUT I’m sick.

I’m sorry your feelings were hurt when you didn’t understand what I said, BUT it’s not my fault.

I’m sorry you feel that way, at all, BUT I’m not willing to help you process your thoughts.

I’m sorry I feel this way, BUT I can’t help it.

I’m sorry I stepped on your toe, BUT you were in my direct path.

I’m sorry I yelled at you, BUT you wouldn’t listen any other way.

I’m sorry for what I said when I yelled at you, BUT it was true.

I’m sorry I ever met you, BUT let’s just part ways now.

I’m sorry your mom died, BUT at least her suffering is over.

I’m sorry I can’t help, BUT it’s just a bad time right now.

I’m sorry I’m taking up so much space, BUT my ideas are really important.

As relational beings, we have this unsatiable desire to explain our behavior, and there are certainly times when an explanation is appropriate and certainly times when an explanation is more appropriate than an apology… especially if we are not actually sorry.  Not all the statements above are conducive to this kind of restructuring, but some are:

I ate the last cookie, because I thought it was fair, since you had more than me yesterday.

(I am not actually sorry I ate the last cookie, so this is a more honest admission of what happened.)

I am sick, so I will not be coming in to work today.

(If you love your job, this may be regrettable, but you are still probably not sorry.  Perhaps you are sad or frustrated.  Being sick and subsequently taking care of your health is not something for which to apologize.  #EndTheRatRace)

I stepped on your toe!  Are you OK?  Would you like me to get an ice pack for you?

(I acknowledge that I caused pain, even if it was an accident, and would like to make it right if I can.)

The things that do not require an explanation (or apology) often fall into one of two categories. 

Things I said, did, or felt that did not cause harm to others but for which I am being held accountable unfairly:

My feelings are legitimate.

My voice at the table matters.


Things I didn’t do (and in which I am in no way complicit): 

Enduring the death of a loved one is so hard.  Please let me know what I can do for you (or even better, I’m sending dinner over on Tuesday, or I’ll be there to do your dishes this weekend, or I’m here to listen).  As a caveat, I realize it is the norm in the English language, in the United States, to say “I’m sorry” when someone dies.  I certainly do this myself, all the time.  I think the word “sorry” in this case actually means something completely different, and it is appropriate.  It means, “I mourn with you,” but I recognize a lot of people would find it very odd if we actually said, “I mourn with you.”  You have to take the temperature of the room and do the best you can to find the most comforting words when dealing with grief, and that is a completely different conversation for another day, I suppose.

But what about the things for which we should actually be sorry?  I think this is the trickiest part of all, and I think the best thing to do is to keep it simple and focused on our own culpability and legitimate sorrow.  When we know precisely what we have done wrong, that looks like:

I’m sorry I hurt you when I did not communicate clearly. 

(puts responsibility on the person who did the hurting, not the one who was hurt)

I’m sorry for the hurtful words I said.

(also, I’m sorry for the hurtful thing I did… and if you know what that thing was, name it)

Sometimes, we don’t know exactly what we did:

I’m sorry for the ways in which I have hurt you.

(If you desire an ongoing relationship, you might also follow this with something like, “I would love to sit down on your terms in order to listen to your narrative and to find a better way to communicate/relate moving forward, if that is something you would like.”)

There is also something (maybe a lot of “somethings”) very important to be said about reconciliation, and it begins with acknowledging that sometimes it cannot happen (maybe you’re legitimately sorry for something that happened years ago but the other party is no longer alive or you cannot find them) or will not happen (the other party has moved on or is not willing to engage in the hard work of reconciliation either because they have been hurt too deeply or they have their own guilt/shame over being partly responsible and are not as sorry as you are) or should not happen (particularly if it could put either party in danger).  But I sincerely believe that if two (or more) parties are willing to reconcile, it can be done, and I also believe it is possible for this to happen over the whole spectrum of relationships, from one-on-one personal connections all the way down the line to tangible systemic change (which is another one of those subjects that deserves a post, conversation, book, or entire library of its own).

I also believe that all of this starts with honesty.  As I already mentioned, apologies (like pretty much all language) are nuanced the moment the words begin to form on our lips.  Be clear about yours.  Be real about whether you are issuing an apology or an explanation and be honest and specific about what you are sorry for.  There is a huge distinction between being sorry for what you have done, being sorry for the consequences (including the hurt of others), and being sorry you got caught.  These are three very different things, and it is OK… even ethical… to verbalize which kind of sorry you are. 

I recently saw a statement which (paraphrased) said something to the effect of, “unless there is a change in actions, there is no apology.”  I think this is partially true.  If you are sorry for something you have said or done, the natural progression of things would indicate that you would no longer do or say those things.  But there are times when we make choices that have hurtful consequences regardless of what we choose.  We may be legitimately sorry for the harm caused to others knowing full well that we would make the same decision again, given the opportunity for a do-over.  We can be honest about that.  I think we have to be honest about that.  There are other times when we can be part of making changes that create a more loving, equitable world, even if we were not directly culpable for the offense at the onset.  I don’t know if we can be sorry about the consequences of other people’s actions, but I do know we can work to find remedies in order to stop the perpetuation of those consequences!  Whew!  I know, I know, it’s hard enough to take responsibility for the stuff we’ve actually done, but as long as we’re thinking along these lines, we might as well go all the way!  And that third one… if you’re really just sorry you got caught… maybe you should stop being sorry.  Maybe you did exactly what you intended to do.  And maybe that’s even OK.  Undoubtedly, it’s better to own it than to fake it


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