July 31, 2007

The Art of Apology

None of us is perfect. As a result, we miscommunicate, misinterpret, malign, calumniate, and engage in otherwise injurious behavior. Yet, we are victims of our own self-made karma. When we injure another person, we injure ourselves. Some of my readers will acknowledge this in a spiritual sense, considering the effect of base behavior on the soul. Still, others will acknowledge this in a practical sense; such behavior damages potential or existing social supports. Still, others will think of our own behavior damaging ourselves in a psychological way. We tend to change our thinking to be in line with our behavior which, in turn, informs future behavior. If we make it a point to damage others when we can, we will become villainous opportunistic people.

Most people, secular and religious, prescribe to the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Even still, many of us fail to achieve this standard on a regular basis. Yet, each of us has a tool that can soften the impact of our interpersonal violence (whatever form it may take) and assist us in the future to behave in a manner that engenders our own ethics. We are capable of apologizing.

People use apologies frequently and to achieve many ends. Some people use apologies to make themselves feel better. Others use them to make others feel better. Some use them to clear the air and make an effort to move forward with people that they don't like. Some people have even turned the apology into an effete ploy for social acceptance or praise. There are many self-serving uses of an apology that you, dear reader, can enumerate further on your own time. However, I argue that there is only one truly valuable use of the apology.

We've all seen siblings somewhere (or been the siblings) whose parent is shouting at them to apologize "like you mean it!" This child clearly cannot value an apology at the present moment and the only thing the parent is teaching the child is how to be an actor. I hope that he/she earns a lot of money when he/she grows up. No one can be forced to truly apologize, it must come from within and it has a very simple requirement.

Using apology in order to achieve one's own ends is a defunct use of the apology. Rather, the ideal apology will be entirely motivated by contrition. Contrition has been defined as sorrow for and detestation of sin with a true purpose of amendment, arising from a love of God for His own perfections (perfect contrition), or from some inferior motive, as fear of divine punishment (imperfect contrition). While some of my readers may be, perhaps, put off by the references to God. I suggest that a secular definition can arise that can be agreed on by many. Contrition, then, may be described as sorrow for injury that one has caused another with a true purpose of amendment. A person who does not feel this way should not apologize. It is a lie to apologize for a malicious act that carries insufficient contrition. Worse, it is an insult to the intelligence of the person who has been injured to suggest that they do not know that it is insincere.

Let's say we've hurt someone and we want to apologize. We feel bad about what happened and wish that we could exorcise it from having happened. Cast a spell and return to the previous situation. Unfortunately, this cannot happen and, just like recovering from any form of trauma, in order to move on, it must be acknowledged as having happened and integrated into everyone's schema of the world in order for the apology to be effective. This means that it is necessary to swallow our pride and belief in self in order to become humble and openly acknowledge that we have engaged in behavior that was less than becoming.

The next step for us in carrying out our ideal apology is to approach the person or people that we have hurt. This is probably the biggest challenge. Many people feel terrible about hurting others but are either ashamed of their behavior or are afraid of the reaction they will get if they make an effort to be conciliatory. This can become compounded to such a degree that an abuser begins to feel that he or she is actually the victim whose voice has been lost. Often, we must force ourselves to swallow our own feelings of victimization and doubt about approaching someone. In the event that we have unintentionally hurt someone, this is less difficult.

Now that we have approached those whom we have hurt, we must formulate our apology. It can start with, "I would like to apologize," however, this phrase is insufficient. It expresses a desire to apologize; it is not an apology in itself. It must be followed by, minimally, a sincere, "I am sorry." It is better if it describes a specific behavior, for example, "I am so sorry that I ruined your skating career when I hired my boyfriend to club your knees." An even better apology expresses earnest contrition, describes the specific behavior that was hurtful, and identifies what about the behavior is now recognized as being particularly hurtful, in no specific order. For example, "When I pushed for stronger laws regulating the interaction between congressmen and pages, I secretly was hoping to better regulate my own behavior as well as advance my political career, it was selfish and hypocritical and I hurt and shocked a lot of people, least of all my loyal constituency, I am so very sorry."

While the delivery of the apology is very important, the next step in the apology is making a commitment to amend the situation or ameliorate the damage to some degree. This is the most important step because it shows that we care about what our future behavior will be like. This is the seal of an apology, it informs the recipient, "there is a measurable way that you will know that I am following through on my apology." This can be simple, we might say, "I'm sorry that I almost ran you over with the fork lift, I was operating it improperly, in the future, I will always operate it properly so that I won't make the same mistake again." It should not be a sacrifice that is not appropriate to the injury. It would be strange to say, "I'm sorry I scuffed your floor with my black shoes, it was irresponsible of me, I'll come over and clean your floors every day for a year." Buh, who wants us in their home every day for a year? A good example of an apology with appropriate amendment would be, "I am sorry. I allowed my selfishness to impede good stewardship of the company and that has cost the employees a great deal in their pension funds. I wish that I had not stolen the money. However, now that it is gone, I will dedicate myself to repaying the entirety of the lost money."

So, remember, if you don't feel like apologizing, don't. People will know that you don't mean your apology and respect you less for that. Furthermore, you won't feel good about yourself unless you apologize when you're truly contrite. When you do apologize make sure that you describe the behavior that was injurious, let the person know that you know why it was injurious, express your contrition, and make a commitment to improve your behavior in the future. If the person to whom you are apologizing refuses to forgive you, that's something you must accept and move on. Let them dwell in the past, you can dwell on how you're behaving right now and make an effort to not need to apologize for what you're doing.

Posted by Mendon at July 31, 2007 7:43 PM

My husband has a saying, which when we were first getting to know each other drove me crazy, 'Apologies are meangingless'. What I eventually worked out was that what he meant was "insincere apologies are meaningless", and are actually insulting to the intellect and understanding of the person receiving an apology - "I don't actually care, but if this pacifies you well and good".

The other point that he raised was that if you are geniunely sorry for your actions that will become apparent over time BECAUSE YOU WILL CHANGE WHAT YOU DO. No apology, however heartfelt, that does not lead to action has value. 'Let deeds not words be your adorning'.

The other thought that comes to mind as I read this entry though, is that apologies will be most effective when they are produced and given within a framework of love and respect. If you love someone (and I use the term to refer to affection and friendship as well) then you are concerned in their best interests. If they are hurt you want to do everything in your power to help them, and that is far more important than how they got hurt or why.

Unfortunately to achieve this state (even with those we love most) requires us to detach from a lot of things - pride, a belief that we are always right, and a concern about appearing to be right in the eyes of the people around us (to name but a few).

When this level of detachment and love towards the injured party is achievable the issue of forgiveness, or the acceptance of the apology, is less important, because I am not apologising to make myself feel better, but in order to be supportive towards someone who is hurt.

Posted by: Helen at August 1, 2007 4:15 AM

I borrowed a book on called The Art of Apology. People have actually studied it. You summed it up quite nicely. I could dicuss the merits of, "Do unto others as you would have Done unto to yourself." Better might be, "Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves." We assume that what we want is what others want and that is not always true.

As a child you were the only one of the four of you, who went sent to their room to "think about it", would come out and sincerely, without prompting, apologize. You really did think it over! I always loved that about you.

Posted by: Ma at August 1, 2007 9:58 AM

Is that what we were meant to do? I only remember being sent to my room because it needed to be cleaned, or for giggling uncontrollably at dinner.

Posted by: R.T. Bean at August 2, 2007 12:58 AM

Actually, the real reason you were sent to your rooms is so I wouldn't lose my temper and hurt you. It was for your protection.

Posted by: Ma at August 2, 2007 10:00 AM
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