The Nature of Apology

I’ve been thinking, of late, about apologies.

Saying “I’m sorry” is an act of humility, and of strength. But it can also just be a tool used, insincerely, to alleviate conflict and evade direct responsibility for one’s actions.

Interestingly, this week I had someone pull out an apology I had made to them months ago and try to use it as a bludgeon against me. She pointed to the fact that I had apologized to her, for whatever part I had in the collapse of our friendship, as proof that I was not only fully at fault but downright malicious. That’s right: by apologizing, I had apparently admitted to complete culpability and that culpability proves that I’m a vicious bastard.

Had I not apologized for anything, like her, I’d presumably have the high ground. I’d be free of all guilt. I’d be the victim.

For the record, if I sat down with you and tried to tell you what the hell happened, what I did that was worth throwing a friendship away for, I couldn’t do it. I’m as perplexed now as I was then. And ultimately it doesn’t matter, because clearly a friendship so cagey and fragile is no friendship at all, and its demise is to be celebrated, not mourned.

She was the one who turned hostile. She was the one who literally refused to discuss whatever was happening. She was the one who responded to my apology by blocking me on Facebook. She was the one who then wrote a lengthy blog post that wasn’t about me, but in which she defined herself by listing things she doesn’t like, which happened to be things I like (pulp fiction, comics, Bruce Springsteen) which she had apparently been pretending interest in to get close to me for months.

So, if I say I’m not sure what I did to enrage her so much, and that she acted with such unreasoning hostility, why did I apologize in the first place?

I apologized because, as a grown up with some years of life experience behind me, I realized that she wasn’t acting in a vacuum  and I was at least somewhat to blame. I had trouble defining my part in the conflict (as I said, she wouldn’t talk to me me about it), but I wasn’t going to deny all blame. So, in an attempt to save a friendship, and in humility, I apologized. I later regretted doing so, even before she turned my apology back at me like a weapon, but I certainly wasn’t wrong to do so.

Of course, an apology doesn’t have to be accepted. Sometimes there’s no forgiveness to be given in return, whether because of the severity of the damage done or (as in the above case) because of an inability to forgive, or even a cruel desire to withhold the chance to atone.

Sometimes, though, the apology is plainly insincere, or it is innately evasive of responsibility and thus unsatisfying. That evasiveness, and lack of satisfaction, can even be subconscious to both parties, but it can ruin all chances at reconciliation.

The evasive apology is the classic political apology. “I’m sorry what I did upset so many people.” Sure. You’re sorry it upset so many people. You’re sorry that you were caught. But you’re not sorry you did it.

Mistakes were made.

This sort of apology changed my life. As I’ve discussed on this blog in the past, I had a fairly hellish childhood. My father was a mean fucking drunk and he did all he could to destroy my sense of self. Most of the major depressive issues I struggle with constantly have their roots in those experiences.

Years later, I confronted him, directly, on all that vicious behavior. He didn’t deny it had happened. He just basically said, “Well, nobody’s perfect, that’s in the past now.”

Mistakes were made. Not only did he not actually apologize, he didn’t take responsibility for his actions. He didn’t say he regretted having hurt me so often and so deliberately. Because he didn’t, because a craven shrug wasn’t enough, I wasn’t able to make the leap of faith I needed to make to forgive him. Added to the fact that his manipulative, negative behavior never actually stopped, it was all too much. I walked away from my relationship with him and haven’t spoken to him in years, and have no intention of ever doing so again. He couldn’t apologize, and he lost his son. On the other hand, he couldn’t apologize, and I gained my freedom.

I discussed this with my shrink when I was in therapy, and I told her had he actually apologized to me for what he had done, I might have been able to work with that. It might have made all the difference. She said that this wasn’t an uncommon event: opportunities are lost forever in a relationship because of the lack of simple, sincere apology.

Simple, sincere, explicit apology. Own up to what you’ve done.

Once, another friend offered apology after a long series of thoughtless actions eroded our relationship to the breaking point. “I’m sorry you feel this way,” he wrote in an email. “I am sorry I let you down.” Not, I’m sorry I acted in this way, but I’m sorry you reacted the way you have. What this told me, basically, was that he saw nothing wrong with the way he’d treated me, and there would probably be no course correction for the sake of our friendship.

With these realizations, I have grown. I apologize when I’m in the wrong, usually very swiftly, because relationships matter and my personal integrity is important to me. I’m humble enough, and strong enough, to acknowledge that I’m wrong. And I make sure to communicate that I am sorry for my failures, not for the reaction those failures earned me.

3 comments on “The Nature of Apology

  1. nydiacarioca says:

    “Apology is the willingness to value the relationship more than the need to be right”. This applies well to this case. You did what you thought it was the right thing to do back then, even not knowing exactly where your blame was/is, because this friendship was more important than your pride – it was a chance to sit and honestly, openly discuss what was wrong, as grown ups do, and what true friends do. But, as you said, a friendship so cagey and fragile is no friendship at all, and looking back now will not fix what happened. You evolved even more as a person after this – she is still stuck in her ego. It’s wonderful that you placed your thoughts and conclusions in this post, but moving on and leaving these past events behind are the right things to do now.

    • Tim Byrd says:

      Oh, absolutely. I detailed that particular incident simply as an example, not because it has any lingering import. I’ve actually been intending to write this entry for a while, it’s probably been percolating for two or three years. Her attack using my apology just helped crystallize the piece finally.

      • nydiacarioca says:

        It’s great – as painful as it must have been – that you were so strong to do the right thing, in your father’s case. You confronted him and walked away from him for good, after realizing he would never understand or see the deep damage he did to you. I’ve seen people trapped into very poisoning relationships with their abusers/bulliers because they desperately needed to hear an apology, to feel worthy their approval, as if it was their fault to be abused and traumatized. And while you have deep scars, you did keep your integrity.

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