How many times do we Canadians hear “I’m sorry”. Inadvertent nudges in aisles, interruptions in conversation, preludes to damning statements. It has been called the Canadian pastime to say “sorry”. We use automatic apologies to fill awkward silences and perceived infractions, often for very superficial reasons.
How many times have we as individuals needed an apology and one never came, or one never came in the form of a true apology with intent, humility and compassion. To make a real apology takes true grit, pain and love. Love in the sense of understanding that you are but one of many on this planet and you have caused harm. To make a true apology means that you have to gird yourself for the reaction and it might not be pretty.
A true apology involves no control on the part of the apologizer. It should not be made to manipulate the other’s behaviour, to curry favour, to smooth the waters. Not when someone has been truly hurt and put down. How many times have you been on the delivering or receiving end of something like this: “I am sorry you took offense to what I said” or “I am sorry you feel that way.” Although possibly well-intentioned, the underlying tone or message of those and similar lines focuses not on the one making the apology. No, lines like these, so common in professional parlance, are about the speaker and their need to retain control and pride. The emphasis is put on the “you”, the recipient and their faulty interpretation or sensitivity. We should all be more careful about how we speak to each other and how we use and phrase words.
A real heartfelt – not intellectually or strategically manufactured – apology involves reflection and thought on the part of the apologizer. A levelling. An acknowledgement of equals, a real understanding of compassion, an ability to emphasize. An understanding of oneself, that we all mess up, that we all speak sharply or fail to understand the negative effect of our actions.
Workplaces, institutions and large bureaucracies are arid ground for apologies. In many places of work where there are hierarchies and levels of authority, there are often many barriers to someone perceived “higher” making a true apology for hurtful action to a “lesser”. Think of doctor’s offices, hospitals, government offices, customer relations desks, schools. It seems to be really difficult for people in positions of perceived authority to really say “sorry”.
I work in a school. I teach over 80 grade 7 and 8 students. Students are often struggling to do well and get through the day. Whatever we say, teachers still are the boss, the leader. And we can cause harm to sensitive teenagers, without even knowing it. There is a powerful hierarchy in the traditional school system. How do you negotiate through the system as a compassionate, caring person who makes a mistake? It takes real courage, actually. There are many people out there who want to catch you in an error, a misspoken word, an erroneous direction, an unfound assumption. What do you do? You say sorry. However difficult. When you say, with honesty, “sorry” to a student, for misunderstanding their actions, for example, you are showing them that you care about them and you care about honesty.
We all know someone who is owed an apology. I am talking a serious apology. When someone has hurt you, either by omission or commission, and never offered an honest apology, the results can be devastating. The hurt never abates, it grows, hardens. It weighs you down and you carry it. It affects your self-esteem and self-worth and it affects the people you love. This can go on for years, between parents and children, siblings, friends, employers and employees, politicians and groups. When someone makes the attempt to really say sorry and take responsibility for inflicting harm on another, the results can be incredible. A weight is lifted. The hurt may begin to dissolve because there is now no substance, the hurt was waiting for an apology. An apology releases all.
Someone I love very much deserves and needs an apology. The sad reality is they will never get it. Too many barriers, too many egos, too many misperceptions. This person is brave and is moving on, but they are carrying the absence of three words: “We are sorry.” They are carrying the full load in the absence of someone else’s compassion.
In 2018, despite all around us, let’s take responsibility for our actions and how we might inflict harm on others. Keep saying sorry on elevators, in grocery stores and crowded lines. Even say sorry when someone steps on YOUR toe (another Canadian eccentricity). But, please, please, say sorry when you really need to. It takes nothing from you, and it makes us all the better. Let’s reconcile ourselves to being more humble, compassionate people.