Conventional wisdom holds that the two most difficult words to utter are, “I’m sorry.”
From earliest childhood, parents, teachers and religious leaders, extol apology as a redemptive act that is integral to the proper functioning of our society. “Transgression demands atonement” is axiomatic. If you violate macro-level law, or simply engage in personal offense, make it right through ownership of the act and contrition.
In the minds of many, apology, like the American Red Cross, is a crisis response institution which is well-known but not known well. We have a vague sense of their respective laudatory aims: the balm with which to mend a broken heart, or the succor of a warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee.
But when pressed to articulate a granular exposition, we settle for the utterance of well-worn vagaries while remaining ignorant of the grander scope. Such less-than-satisfying statements evince our incomplete understanding of the form and function of contrition.
There is nothing inherently talismanic in the utterance of “I’m sorry.” Speaking the perfunctory words does NOT entitle the declarant to the guarantee of acceptance. The process is, and of moral right ought to be, more complicated.
The penitent offender must afford the aggrieved party a meaningful opportunity to make an informed decision whether to accept or reject the petition. To do so, there must be complete disclosure of the facts and circumstances.
Simply telling your spouse/domestic partner/significant other “I’m sorry” for an unspecified offense is rarely sufficient. A qualified apology is similarly ineffective.
Speaking the classic – and offensive – “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” is like throwing accelerant on a five-alarm emotional blaze. The subtext suggests a less nuanced, though perhaps more honest, sentiment: “It’s too bad you’re so thin-skinned as to take offense.” Secondary victimization is NOT an observed best practice.
What Constitutes a Genuine Apology
The Wall Street Journal published “The Sincerity Scale,” a graphic depiction which ranks apologies from most to least effective. I use this work to train attorneys and law students to be more effective negotiators. Few techniques prime the pump for successful deal making more than a value-creating opening salvo.
Scholars Jennifer Gerarda Brown and Jennifer K. Robbennolt observe that genuine apology consists of the separate, yet complementary, empowering principles of reconciliation and forgiveness.
The former invests the wronged individual with the power to restore some semblance of the relationship, even if they will continue to harbor the event in their hearts. The latter affords a victim the opportunity to open their heart in demonstration of unconditional love. The heaviest burden to carry is a grudge.
An example serves to illustrate this point. A cuckold (the formal term for one who has been violated by the infidelity of another in a purportedly committed relationship) might reply, “What you’ve done to me has irreparably breached the trust of our union. I will never forgive you, but we will move forward together.” Alternatively, s/he could declare, “The pain you’ve inflicted on me is less than the grief you will shoulder. I forgive and wish you well. But we’re done.”
The sweet spot on the Venn diagram of apology is the zone where the circles of reconciliation and forgiveness overlap. In such instance, the relationship continues and has a chance to grow stronger through what can be a painful process of healing.
Now that we understand what apology is, let’s appreciate what it is NOT. The word derives from the Greek apologia (“a speech in one’s own defense”). This presumes that the speaker has engaged in conduct for which a defense is required, or even appropriate.
One can say “I’m sorry” to express solidarity or intimacy with a friend, at a memorial service or upon hearing of the loss of a job.
Apology can also be a trite rejoinder to minor inconvenience. “The barista gave you a Tall, Non-Fat Latte with Caramel Drizzle instead of a Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato? Wow. I’m sorry.”
We can distinguish between the death of a loved one and the first-world inconvenience of a caffeinated service failure. The misuse, or mere overuse, of apology eviscerates its power in proper context. With alarming regularity, some bow to misplaced social convention, thereby further blurring what were once bright lines of demarcation.
Never Apologize: The Situations That Call For It
I chose to invest my collegiate study in exploration of Philosophy. For me, it was not merely a means to satisfy a graduation requirement, but the conscious decision to embrace a life of the mind. Under the tutelage of several Jesuit intellectual giants, I gradually learned that it takes a conscious act of courage to speak truth to power.
In the intervening quarter century, I have thought long and hard about ethical issues including the related duties of truth-telling and apology. What I have discerned is that there are most assuredly behaviors and occurrences for which we ought not to be repentant.
I am pleased to raise for collective consideration four actions for which one should never apologize.
1) Speaking The Truth (Not “Your Truth,” The Truth) No Matter How “Inconvenient”
Rugged individualists run the real risk of being ostracized within their communities. An unlikely trio of Western European figures underscores the point.
Galileo Galilei, the paradigm-shattering 17th Century Italian physicist/astronomer, had the audacity to publicly espouse his belief in a helio (sun)-centric universe. He defied both secular convention and religious authority by maintaining that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around.
In reaction, the Catholic Church proclaimed him a heretic and placed the visionary under lifetime house arrest. In an apocryphal statement attributed to Galileo following his recantation, he defiantly declared, “E pur, simuove” (“Even so, it does move.”) In 1992, St. Pope John Paul II acknowledged the correctness of Galileo’s finding.
Three hundred years later, Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the world as British essayist George Orwell, wrote:
“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Contemporary society is plagued by an aversion to apply formative descriptors. In particular, members of Generation X and their Millennial successors are downright apologetic in this regard. Conversations no longer include declarative statements. Today, what passes for dialogue is often the mere exchange of mealy mouthed, up-ticked interrogatories and “vocal fry” that betray less-than-confident speakers.
Consensus seems to hold that expressing an opinion with less-than-forced hyperbole is an incivility to avoid at any cost. Such timidity is unwarranted.
Popular discourse today also includes the disturbing exhortation to “live in/speak your truth.” To be clear, there is but one truth. Not your truth, nor my truth; THE truth. That fact may prove to be uncomfortable to some; one should never apologize about this objective, existential reality.
Doing otherwise is an act of intellectual dishonesty that places both the speaker and her audience on the moral slippery slope. Take a stand for The Truth.
2) The Open Practice of Your Faith (Even When Yours are Not the Tenets Du Jour)
According to legend, a farmer once sat down to breakfast with his young son. In attempting to impart a life lesson, the elder man picked up his fork and pointed at the plate. “See those eggs? That chicken was involved. See that bacon? That pig was committed.”
Each of the great faith traditions venerate martyrs (from the Greek, “to witness”), those who are willing to lay down their lives in ultimate sacrifice for transcendent beliefs.
It is neither easy nor politically expedient for individuals to openly demonstrate their faith. Making the Sign of the Cross, donning a yarmulke, or wearing a burka requires self-confidence. The adherent understands that such unmistakable public professions speak to insider/outsider status.
In December 1791, the Founding Fathers ratified the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the majestic United States Constitution. The liberties they enshrined some 230 years ago continue to ensure the viability of our republic and its democratic ideals.
The First Amendment secures four freedoms, the first of which is Freedom of Religion. America was founded by those who sought a homeland in which they could worship in accordance with their conscience. Those values remain expressly manifest in our Pledge of Allegiance, national songbook, and currency.
Whether you self-identify as theist, deist, atheist, agnostic, or a devotee of any other belief-based system, enter the public square with your head held high. Since 1776, Americans have shed blood, sweat and tears to provide us with this extraordinary birthright.
Never apologize for proudly professing your faith.
3) Your Core Values (Regardless of What Color Political Pundits Assign to Your State)
Historians will remember the Presidential Election of 2016 as one of the most divisive periods in the first half of the 21st Century. From the Tea Party to Pantsuit Nation, Americans polarized behind two major party candidates, neither of which enjoyed true broad-based support.
In the frenzy to ‘Make America Great Again’ or to steadfastly proclaim ‘I’m With Her’, media outlets and political pundits declared that our nation is conveniently divided into Red and Blue States. This reductionist oversimplification fails to acknowledge that those in Pensacola see the world as differently from residents of Miami, as Albany homesteaders disagree with Manhattan denizens.
Buttons and bumper stickers communicate sound bites, not nuanced understanding. The emerging descriptor Purple America offers some solace to those who reject absolutist labels.
Returning to the First Amendment, we find the freedoms of Speech and Peaceable Assembly. Americans have the right to speak or write about their ideals, and even to do so with like-minded people. In some quarters of the world, the exercise of those “basic” freedoms is punishable by death.
Whether you are a Republican in New York City, a Democrat in Tupelo, MS or an Independent who ‘Felt the Bern’ in the Midwest, be cognizant of the fact that you continue to enjoy the freedom to articulate those passions in the marketplace of ideas. That is the essence of the peaceful transition of power.
Be proud of who you are and never apologize for it.
4) The Tenacious Defense of the Defenseless (A Compassionate Society is Measured By How It Cares for Its Most Vulnerable Members)
American social activists including Emma Lazarus and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have opined that until we are all free, none of us are free. In the 21st Century, many of our brothers and sisters are bound in the shackles of unemployment, poverty, drug/alcohol dependence, mental illness, and homelessness.
As people of good will, we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Conceptually, most would agree these are social goods toward which we should strive. In application, progressive reform is all-too-often met with resistance embodied in the acronym NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”).
- Open a charter school. (But don’t use my tax dollars to provide a facility for your students.)
- Start a work readiness program. (Don’t bring your graduates to my Human Resources Department looking to join our workforce.)
- Fund a halfway house. (Just don’t put in near my home.)
A paraphrased query of frequent misattribution and unconfirmed origin holds, “If not you, who? If not now, when?” It captures the modern zeitgeist.
In a steadily polarizing nation of haves and have-nots, we must not shirk our individual and collective responsibility to care for those who cannot do for themselves.
Disbelieve you or your family won’t/can’t find yourself in similar dire straits? Think again.
A 2015 study found that 56.3 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 in their combined checking and savings accounts. For many, living – existing – paycheck to paycheck is a way of life. In 2016, The Atlantic magazine reported a Federal Reserve study which found that 47 percent of respondents would have to sell something or borrow money to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
Many of us at some point in our lives need a dignified hand-up, not a stigmatizing hand-out. Be an agent for positive change and break the cycle of socio-economic failure. Never apologize for trying to save lives.
When you do wrong, make amends. When you see something broken, fix it. When you encounter someone whose life you can improve, do so.
There are many breaches of the social contract for which to apologize. Being faithful to the values that shape you and the freedoms which protect you are NOT on that list. Never apologize for living life as you should.
And for those blessings, I make no mea culpa.