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Monday, June 15, 2015

On apologies and forgiveness

Monday, June 15, 2015 By

AUGUSTA, GA. - Of all the lessons I try to teach Emerson, I think the most powerful is how to give and to accept apologies and offer forgiveness.

Whether it is for a minor offense ("I'm sorry I dropped that glass.") or a major snafu ("I am sorry I forgot our anniversary."), I try really hard to model and to encourage what it takes to give and accept apologies and try to forgive.

On apologies

Apologies can be a beautiful thing. I'm not talking about the begrudging "SOR-RY!" that you might get from a playground bully when he or she is forced to apologize by a teacher. Or the snarky "Oh, sorry..." you might receive from that adult Regina George wanna-be who always manages to put other people's children down while exalting her own children. Or even the "sorry, sorry" that we mutter as reflex whenever we pass to closely someone on a crowded street.

Sincere apologies are really an amazing human response. With just a few words - that we developed over several millenia (no big deal, right?) and the appropriate non-verbal cues, we have the power to heal other people of actual wounds that we have inflicted. They may not be physical wounds, but they're no less real. Apologies can temper humiliation, lessen grudges, eliminate vengeance, and inspire forgiveness. They can assuage guilt, reduce shame, and improve self-esteem. They can repair a broken relationship, knit a marital rift, and mend a torn friendship.

With that much power, it's no wonder they don't come easily. And it's not surprising that it demands a lot from a person.
  • First, an apology requires a person to have the self-awareness to realize that you have committed an offense against another person. That's a level of self-reflection that a lot of people do not possess.
  • Second, an apology requires a person to take ownership of the wrong and accept the consequences of their behavior.
  • Third, an apology is best served with some kind of restitution - some way to right the wrong that was perpetrated. 
That's a lot. So when someone apologizes, it's important to be gracious. Because every apology requires a certain display of humility. The person apologizing is prostrating themselves before you, to an extent.

But when the quality of your character matters to you, and you care about the people you have hurt, a sincere apology is usually worth it. And sincerity cannot be faked. But many people will try, and it's in your best interests to learn how to recognize a person who is insincere in his or her apology in some way. Perhaps he or she is seeking your approval, but not truly remorseful. Perhaps he or she is simply sorry for getting caught, and not for the behavior. Perhaps they face social pressure to mend the relationship. Perhaps they feel guilty, but are apologizing for themselves, and not for you.

The issue that we often run into is that accepting an apology is expected, once it is offered. Even a mere suggestion of contrition brings to bear a social code wherein the wounded party is required to immediately forgive the offending party.

But what if the apology is insincere? What if the apology is given to regain social status, for example? There are ways to tell.

A person offering an insincere apology will toy with the right words, but ultimately insist on including the wounded party in the blame. It is sociopathic behavior, but if the person you're dealing with was fixed with a strong moral center, he or she likely wouldn't have done something for which an apology is necessary. He or she will:

  • Remind you of your supposed moral responsibility to accept his or her apology.
  • Will accuse you of similar behavior to deflect from their offense, or find a reason to blame you in some way.
  • Will be dishonest in relating the facts of the offense leading up to the apology.
  • Will express sympathy and concern for you, but not regret or remorse for the wrong.
  • Will talk more about their own situation to garner sympathy for themselves, break down your barrier to forgiveness and manipulate you into their good graces or control again.
So how do you know if an apology is sincere? Well, you can carry around the checklists above, but that's not very practical. In general, if you feel worse after an apology, it's probably not sincere. And you have to accept that the person speaking to you is not actually sorry, and there is nothing you can do to change that. What you have to do is decide if this person is worthy of being in your life. How big was the offense? What were the motivations behind it? How likely is it to happen again? Is this a first offense or a repeating pattern? And only you can answer those questions.

On forgiveness 

How important is it to forgive someone for an offense?

Forgiveness is central to the Christian tradition, and therefore it's a common theme in American culture. The Bible has a lot to say on the subject, but forgiveness is generally defined as an act of mercy and grace on the part of the wronged. It is interesting to note that English translations lack the nuance of the original languages - Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic - and there are scholars who differ on the translation of the word.

From a secular standpoint, most people turn to the seeming wisdom of Hannah Arendt. In "The Human Condition," she argued that forgiveness is a necessary achievement. That the opposite of forgiveness is punishment: Without forgiveness, we would be forever "confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer's apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell."

I'm not a religious or philosophical leader. Yet I say forgiveness is ideal, but unnecessary. It is a choice we make based on who we want to be - and it's important to make the distinction between forgiving someone and trusting someone.

It is possible to forgive someone and choose to trust him or her again.

It is also possible to forgive someone and choose not to trust that person again.

It is possible forgive someone and believe that he or she should still be punished for a crime.

It is also possible to forgive an offense too quickly or too readily - and thus offer forgiveness as in-authentically as any insincere apology, because true forgiveness is a process.

But it is also possible to choose not to forgive someone, and still lead a happy, progressive life. To interact with them in a professional or friendly way. In other words, to choose not to excuse an offender's behavior in any way, but to also refuse to let the offender's behavior dictate your own.

The common wisdom is that people who forgive are healthier and more whole, and that people who do not forgive are angry, bitter and live in the past. But common wisdom can also be terribly wrong. The narrative of necessary forgiveness assumes that an offender's behavior forever dictates the wronged person's behavior and even self-actualization. It assumes a childish game of tit-for-tat, wherein wherein the wronged person spews venom, attempts retribution, or fixates on the wrong or the offender.

And that can sometimes happen. We all know people like that. But that is not the case for all people. There are those who live by moral and ethical guidelines and do not make quid pro quo choices on how to behave towards other people. There exist people who can choose not to forgive an offender, and yet go about their days indifferent to schadenfreude. Those people practice acceptance over forgiveness.

So to accept an apology, or not? To forgive, or not to forgive? That is the question. Except it's really not. The real question is: Who is your offender, and who are you? Who do you want to be?

And only you can answer that.


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