I’m sorry, so sorry

Posted by on Aug 25, 2011 in Ingredients, Micropeacebuilding | 0 comments

“I’m sorry, two words I always think after you’re gone and I realize I was acting all wrong.”

We have all been forced to apologize as little kids, whether it was to our siblings, friends, random children on the playground, or even our enemies. Both of us always ran to an adult, pointed at another child accusingly, and tattled about some extremely serious transgression. Sometimes these petty arguments would even escalate to the point where balling up our sweaty fists and slamming one of them into our opponent’s closest body part seemed entirely reasonable and justifiable. This behavior always warranted a forced “I’m sorry,” while we stood there red faced and sniveling, snot across our cheeks and a mean glare in our eyes. I never walked away from those interactions feeling even the slightest bit sorry for what I had done. I only feigned remorse because there was an interrupted game just waiting for my arrival.

So if my “I’m sorry” was completely shallow and had no real meaning, why was I forced to say it? Why did the adults feel it was necessary that apologies be exchanged? I can think of two reasons.

One: We had to be taught a lesson. What we did was wrong and we needed to make up for it.

Two: It made the adults feel better. With two small words, the situation was quickly settled and we could move on with our day, although as children the apology didn’t actually resolve the tension and anger bubbling under the falsely smoothed surface. We just weren’t allowed to talk about it anymore.

As adults, unless we are in an unusual circumstance, we are not obliged to say, “I’m sorry.” There is no external force that helps rebalance the equilibrium when we commit an act of injustice, which means we must determine by ourselves when we want to admit we did something wrong and apologize. Saying “I’m sorry” becomes a choice, not a mandate, consequently, there are numerous reasons why we decide to utter these two words, some of them not quite in the spirit of a true apology. These are the repeat offenders from my personal experience.

One: To make ourselves feel better. This is typically what happens when we says I’m sorry and expect the hurt party to quickly and easily forget about whatever happened. Later, the shocked words, “but I apologized!” come out of our mouths when we discover the other person is still upset and perhaps angry. Another typical, and fatalistic, response in this case is, “there’s nothing else I can do.”

Two: To get an apology. Let’s say two people hurt each other’s feelings. One person comes to other and says, “I’m sorry” and has the expectation that they will hear it back. However, he or she doesn’t take into account that the other person may not ready to genuinely accept an apology, let alone give one.

Three: To be perceived as “the better person.” This relates to making ourselves feel better, but goes a little further because in this case an elevated status is desired. You gain immediate satisfaction from saying “I’m sorry,” but this action also gives you a reason to feel pious and guilt-free in the long run as well as always come out looking like the “good guy.”

Four: To avoid punishment.

The common thread throughout all these is they are lacking a crucial element of an apology, sincerity. They use “I’m sorry” as a bargaining tool or strategy rather than a method of restoring a relationship. A genuine apology is intended to be a way of outwardly admitting and acknowledging you did something wrong. With an apology, you own your actions and the reality that you are not perfect. As human beings, we are all going to make mistakes. In fact, we should make mistakes, but because our mistakes are typically not planned, we should be prepared to make amends for them.

Additionally, even if we rally enough courage to humble ourselves, face the person we hurt, and say “I am truly sorry,” we need to accept the fact that while you may be ready to give an apology, the other person may not be ready to embrace it and simply move on. We can take this as an opportunity to show our sincerity through our subsequent actions. This is not to say we should be taken advantage of or be condemned to a lifetime of indentured servitude for a transgression. It only means if someone is worth apologizing to, they should also be worth the time it takes to rebuild and restore whatever was broken, however minor or acute it may be.

Saying, and accepting, “I’m sorry” can be two of the most powerful steps towards building peace because they require realizing, facing, and publicly admitting our own imperfections as well as understanding the limitations other human beings sometimes expose. It then requires a commitment to conduct ourselves differently in the future and alter the behavior that warranted apology in the first place. These moments are what create a consciously flawed yet real, beautiful, and ultimately unified humanity.

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