Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill. ~Buddha
I heard this tentative knock on our front door. Before I opened it, I could hear the unmistakable shuffling of feet and muffled sounds of laughter. Boys. There are boys at my door. Their voices grew clearer as I opened the door. “I’d like a word with Boy Wonder,” said the youngest of the group.
I stepped into the living room where I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation. What I heard took my breath away.
“I’m sorry I was such a poor sport yesterday and called you mean names.” With a peek around the corner I could see my son’s young friend looking a little sheepish, his feet pigeon toed and his face sporting a hesitant smile.
And right before my eager eyes, all was forgiven. In an instant, all was well. As a mother of a boy, I can’t help but marvel at the swiftness of these exchanges. Because, while I don’t have a girl, I can clearly remember my childhood and the drama that seemed to swirl around the “fairer” sex. Watching my son with his friends makes me question if indeed womanhood has been misnamed. But, perhaps I’m over-reaching here. Perhaps this swiftness has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with experience.
The thing that gets me about this exchange is not its brevity exactly, as much as what is missing altogether. No justifications are to be found. No modifiers included. Not one trace of obfuscation. That apology was perfectly devoid of any qualifiers. I’m impressed by what it wasn’t: an adult apology! In fact, it seems to be missing all the hallmarks of every apology I’ve ever heard ,or given for that matter, in adulthood.
What happens to us as we grow up that makes us loath to admit responsibility without qualification? Why is it so difficult, when it is clear to everyone involved, to admit we are wrong. Wrong without excuse. Wrong without exceptions. Wrong without explanation. JUST PLAIN WRONG.
And in being wrong, sorry. Terribly sorry for our behavior. So much so, we do not recognize ourselves in the mirror and cannot imagine how we must be viewed. Simply put, we were mean and we’re sorry.
Not, “I was mean, but my sister picked on me all day, I’m sorry.”
Not, “I was mean, but I didn’t really intend to be mean, so I’m sorry.”
Not, “I was mean, but I had a hard day at work/school/life, I’m sorry.”
Not, “Well, you did this to me, so I felt justified being mean, but I’m sorry.”
No. No, no, no, no, no!
It’s not that the “Why” doesn’t matter. Sure, there are reasons for our behavior. Not that we ever really want to admit to all of it. I mean, if the reason is, “I was a real shit!” then, yeah, it’s not so fun to look at that! But in truth, there will be plenty of time later for the reasons. Tacking them onto an apology dilutes the emphasis on our contrition.
If you’re listening to an apology riddled with explanations and qualifications, it can be difficult to hear that contrition. Oh, it’s there. It’s just buried beneath a pile of “yes, buts”. It seems a bit cheeky on the part of the penitent to require you to dig through their denial for your apology. “Here’s a shovel, you’re going to need it, because I’m sorry.” And beyond cheeky, it’s presumptuous to assume those we’ve wounded are interested in our “whys”. We hope they will want to hear our explanations; but tacking them onto an apology is rawest form of entitlement.
No, instead, I would suggest that when we find ourselves in the wrong we choose courage. Courage to admit we screwed up. Courage without qualification. Courage without excuses. And it does take courage to face those we’ve injured and not explain our actions away. It takes a great deal of personal fortitude to face the consequences that come with such an apology. It is possible there will be no easy fix, no fix at all. Qualifying our behavior does not abate the risk, it only lessens the blow for us. And in the process, we side-step being responsible. I’m not sure we can actually call it an apology if there’s a caveat.
We cannot go through life without injuring those we love. It’s just not possible. What marks us, what lays claim to our character, is what we do AFTER we realize we’ve been, well, a shit! We can only strive to be courageous. We can only hope to claim our inner eight-year old self with pigeon-toed feet and hesitant smiles and simply say, “I was mean, I’m sorry.”