In a workshop I gave on regrets and apologies, someone asked “What was the cruelest thing you ever said or did?” After sifting through my many transgressions, one stuck out—something I said more than forty years ago and still brings back pains of regret. A colleague had repeatedly asked me to do something I preferred not to do. In response to his incessant questioning of my refusal, I said in frustration “I won’t do it because I don’t like you.”
Although the answer was truthful, it was deliberately hurtful since I knew he had issues with friendship. I believed my response was “justified,” given his persistence. I learned very quickly that my righteous indignation didn’t produce satisfaction. If it did, why did I regret my cruel words forty years after I said them? The Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals at your enemies, but in the process, you’ll burn your hands.” Mine are scorched.
Apologies and Vulnerability
A reoccurring theme in my hospice patient’s concerns were regrets for hurtful words or behaviors. One woman who abandoned her children when she was a teenager wanted their forgiveness, but they refused to visit her or even answer the phone. Another person who had asked his friend to do something unethical wanted to apologize, but she died before he was ready to ask for forgiveness.
There is no joy in hurting someone, whether it is intentional or unintentional. The simplest—but not the easiest—way of preventing the lingering effects of cruel words or behaviors is to apologize. The problem with apologies is it makes one vulnerable; a willingness to admit you were cruel or unskillful. Unfortunately, technology has provided us with the means to reduce our vulnerability. Enter, what I call, “modern apologies.”
The nature of apologies changed with the creation of the internet and texting. It became easy to say “I’m sorry,” as a text, email, or with a website click you could send a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates delivered by a stranger.
Apologizes made through a text, email, or gifts allows the person who is apologizing to erect a defensive barrier between herself and the person to whom she is apologizing. The unskillful person can say to himself, “I apologized, now it’s time to move on.” When the reaction is less than positive, the person doesn’t understand why their apology was rejected.
How Apologies Should Be Made
There was a time when apologies were made in person, where you looked someone in the eyes, admitted what you did was wrong, cruel, unintentional, or just stupid, and listened to their reactions, as difficult as they were to hear.
There is the wrong assumption that apologies give support to unacceptable behaviors. For example, although you humiliated a colleague at a meeting, you felt there is no need to apologize since what he was suggesting made no sense. Although you may believe he is an idiot, that’s no justification for not apologizing. You apologize for hurting him, not for objecting to his inane comments.
Apologies should not be painless. The easier they are, the more meaningless they become. An apology can teach us something about our insensitivity. President Trump prides himself on never apologizing, believing it shows strength, whether that involves outrageous claims about Obama’s birth, gross inaccuracies about a Gold Star Mother, or cruel remarks about a dying American hero. Refusing to apologize does not show strength, but rather weakness. It says, “My personality is so fragile that I’m afraid to show any vulnerability, any self-reflection, any desire to become a better person.”
Apologizing, Self-Reflection, and Redemption
In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare has Portia talking about “mercy” as something that heals both the person who offers it as well as the person receiving it. The same is true for apologies. Apologizing in person not only bestows blessings on both parties but can be instructional: “Why did I say that,” “What can I do to avoid it in the future? “
Time is running out for all of us. I lost contact with the colleague I hurt many years ago, and the possibility of apologizing to him in person is remote. It was a lesson that changed how I react to new offenses caused by my unskillful behaviors—I apologize in person, quickly, with genuine regret for hurting them, and use the feedback I receive to become a better person—or at least try to be.