Thursday, January 16, 2014

When is an Apology Not an Apology?

One of the great things about living near New York City was listening to public radio station WNYC all the time.  I still listen to the podcasts of some of their programs including the weekday talk show, The Brian Lehrer Show.  As a part of his coverage of NJ Governor Chris Christie's non-apology (for his administration causing traffic jams as political payback to a local city mayor who failed to support Christie's re-election bid), the public radio program had a segment on what makes for a good apology and conversely what makes for a bad apology or even a non-apology apology.

The guest on the show was Lauren Bloom, a lawyer and minister, who has written a book titled The Art of the Apology.  I don't know anything about Bloom, except I liked what she had to say not just about Governor Christie's non-apology but also about what makes for a true apology.  Here are her basic points:
  • It's not about you--stick to the hurt you've caused the other person
  • Be sincere--it seems obvious. . . 
  • Don't lie--also seems obvious but . . .  
  • Don't demand forgiveness--forgiveness is a gift
  • You have to care--be compassionate towards the one you have hurt
  • Wait before you apologize--really think about what you have done and why you are sorry
  • Non-apologies--I'm sorry if you feel that way. . . I'm sorry if. . . I'm sorry but. . .  
One of my pet peeves is when politicians (and they all do it no matter their party affiliation) do the perp walk in front of the TV cameras and declare "I'm sorry if anyone was offended. . . "  Celebrities of all stripes issue similar non-apologies.  When I hear those awful words, I think, "So, you're really just sorry that there are people in the world who were offended, but you're not really sorry for what you did or said?"  The word "sorry" comes out of their mouths or their speech writer's or publicist's computer, but they really do not offer an apology. 

I'd love to say that I have never uttered such words, but I have.  In arguments that are the most heated and most personal, I have uttered similar words--a non-apology in order to get an apology out of the person I'm arguing with or maybe just to move on and get the argument over with.  When I or anyone else offers a non-apology, we aren't really sorry for anything we have done--we just wish the other person would get over it.  Far better, it seems to me for me to reconsider what I've done and ask the other person to give me some time to think about what they have said.  I usually find that when I cool down and the adrenaline and emotion subside, I'm much more willing to actually consider another person's point of view.  Furthermore, I usually discover that whatever point I was trying so hard to make often isn't worth hurting someone else over.

In our time when we can do real damage to others by simply hitting "reply" or "tweet" or "publish" without really thinking about it first, the art of the apology seems like a lost art. 

If we are willing to stop and consider what an apology actually is then we discover that it is an entirely Christian thing to do.  A true apology involves compassion--literally "suffering with"--and thinking about what it is like to be the other person.  It involves reconciliation and repairing broken relationships.  A true apology means acknowledging one's own mistakes and one's failure to treat the other with at the very least respect but more importantly with love.  A true apology is an attempt to state clearly what I have done to hurt others without the addition of "and," "if" or "but"; an apology is taking responsibility for one's own actions regardless of what others may have done to you.

An apology, if it is true, can be a liberating act, because it is given without the expectation of the other person apologizing in return.  (If an apology is offered just to prompt an apology out of another, then it is not a true apology.)  We cannot control what others do and say to us, but we can control what we do and say to others.  Giving a true apology means being emotionally mature enough to claim responsibility for what you do and say even if that apology is not accepted.   A genuine apology involves letting go of bitterness and anger in order to work towards reconciliation.  Even if an apology is not accepted, it is a relief to let go of the baggage resentment forces us to carry.

Of course, an apology, if it is true, as anyone in a 12-step group can tell you, means making amends--literally working to mend what you have broken--whether it is something like trust or something more tangible.  Amends can't really begin, however, without a legitimate apology.

To Bloom's list above, I would add another item--prayer.  Like most things on the above list, praying seems like an obvious thing to do, however if I'm pissed off or stuck in some kind of shame spiral where I don't want to face my own behavior, prayer is the absolute last thing I want to do.   Ultimately, finding the integrity inside yourself to really apologize is grace--something greater than us is needed--something we can't make happen on our own.  When we are honest, we all can be pretty damn selfish, stubborn and narrow-minded, so we need God's help to truly apologize and then let the chips fall where they may.  Taking a moment to ask for God's help as you consider your apology matters, because we need the help. 

In the letter of James, we find these words about the tongue:

"For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?"

We act from so many mixed motives--often ones that we are not even conscious of--that we need the help of something beyond ourselves to speak an apology from a place of integrity. 

As we continue the journey together, let us learn to apologize.

Grace and Peace,

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