Dear Lily June,
The other day in my office, a newly installed closet door came off its hinge and was dangerously close to falling on my head. I walked across the hall to my boss’s (the head secretary, Sherry’s) office, and immediately reported it. “I’m sorry,” I said, and turned to walk out, but her question echoing towards my back stopped me. “Why?” Sherry pried, her lips spitting the question through a pursed slit. “Why are you sorry?”
A large door had almost fallen and injured me. I hadn’t installed the door. I hadn’t damaged the hinge. In fact, I don’t mean to sound cocky, Lily, but after thirty odd years of turning knobs and pulling handles, I’m relatively certain I use a door to its exact specifications, opening and closing it with precision. (It’s true. I’ve got mad skills.) So why was I sorry?
“I have no idea why I said that,” I honestly told Sherry, who’s been trying to break me of the habit since I started at this particular job two years ago. For having apologized yet again when I wasn’t supposed to, I felt guilty. So I quickly said to Sherry, without a shred of irony, “I’m really sorry.” People don’t breathe with this level of frequency.
She laughed because she didn’t believe me.
I know where it started, Lily, but it isn’t where you’d think, necessarily. If you know what I think you know by now about my family, you’re aware that my father was a drinker. You know he put his hands on my mother in anger; you know his cumulonimbus moods wrung themselves out over my whole family. What you may not know, Lily, was that he was also a composer.
He could craft a symphony of apology after the harshest blows so thorough, they must have still left notes winging in the air, long after my mother divorced him, remarried, and ceased to care. In my home, love didn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, as a popular movie tagline from just before my time claimed. Love meant almost never saying anything but.
And because I was, inexplicably, a daddy’s girl, I took to practicing my father’s Sorrys under my breath, trotting them out when my sister would, for instance, scold me for hours for leaving socks on the floor or for not scrubbing the dishes right. If things weren’t spotless, my mother would take the brunt of the physical punishment, but the fear sunk into all of our guts the same.
And I would dig my fingernails into my skin while my sister intoned my catalogue of faults until there were dozens of crescent moons carved into my forearms that, in my anxiety, I could count later in my favorite group of numbers, one for each finger: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Once, my sister caught on that that’s what I was doing during her lecture, and she grabbed my arm and twisted it to stare with a horrified grimace at what I’d done. She looked from me to my arm then back at me. “I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it. “Loren, I was listening, I swear. I’m sorry.” I have no idea if she believed me.
My mother is the only other person who has called me out on this habit, noticing my verbal ticks like only a mother can do. She told me over and over when I was a kid that I needed to kick my guilty conscience. But she was fond of announcing, when my sister or I were in trouble, “I have a bone to pick with you.” Heaven help us all if you ever hear me employ that expression, said by my mother almost as often as I said–and still say–“I’m sorry.”
I know, Lily, that this is a habit I need to break before you hear me and think it’s a woman’s place to atone for breathing, make amends for having a heart beat, repent for taking up space. So many of my apologies are to avoid conflict in the first place. I often believe if I don’t say them, no one else will, or think, deep down and in earnest, no matter what I do, there is a way I am to blame. From over-apologizing, I’ve lost my ability to distinguish between the moments when it is or isn’t truly my fault to claim.
This much, though, I know is true (and I relate, and dedicate these lessons, to a friend, Patricia, who sometimes apologizes like I do, and who, though she has different advice altogether about apologies, has taught me a lot about the way I look at my own):
1. Apologize when you mean it. Mean it wholeheartedly whenever you apologize.
2. It’s better to make amends in deed than in word. If you’ve hurt someone and you’re truly sorry, try like hell to remedy the situation.
3. Only when you can’t make some kind of physical restitution should you rely on words of apology solely. And even then, you should only do so, as they advise as one of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, when to reach out to the person you’ve harmed WON’T do further damage.
4. With some people you’ve done wrong, your silence is the greater kindness. You’ll know when this is the truth. Don’t go against it.
5. An apology is better when paired with empathy. Attempt to get into the mindset of the injured party and really understand, not just what you’ve done, but how it’s affected them and why they feel the way they do. It’s not about what your intentions were, it’s about what their interpretations of your actions are.
6. In other words, let go of what you were trying to do. Apologize for what you’ve done.
7. To reiterate what Patricia said, an apology should never end with a retraction (i.e. “I’m sorry, but…”)
8. Just like you wouldn’t give a gift only to get one back, you can’t extract a deserved apology from another party by being the first to apologize yourself. If someone else has wronged you, and you truly believe you didn’t contribute to the conflict even a little bit, do your mother a favor and do as I say, not as I do. Don’t apologize in that situation (if you can help it.)
9. And this one I’m stealing directly from your “Auntie Patricia”:
“[An apology] does not take away from the lesson to be learned [on your] part in the situation.”
It’s your responsibility not just to be sorry, but to learn how to do better. It’s your responsibility not just to fix the harm you’ve done, but to prevent the same kind of thing from happening the next time around.
10. Don’t be, like your mother, the girl who cried sorry, or, even when you are, people may not believe it. When you’re sorry, the last thing you want is for others to question your credibility.
If all else fails, you can always rely on humor.
Your father and I know each other so well and have swapped hurt feelings and bruised egos for so long, we now know what the other can and can’t do to make amends. And when we’ve made the same foolhardy mistake for the millionth time against one another, we turn to the philosophical wisdom of Homer Simpson and apologize in this manner:
“Well EXCUSE me for having MAJOR flaws that I DON’T work on.”
- By Faberventi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43380986
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7781941