The problem with “Sorry”

Leave a comment

December 19, 2014 by rebelwithalabelmaker

Me:  I’m sorry about that.

Mike (very concerned):  Oh, it’s okay–I’m not upset.

Me:  Oh, it’s okay–I’m not sorry.

It took a while for our Canadian to American relationship to learn the translation.  I knew Mike was getting the idea when he Facebook posted from a galactically delayed flight that “Air Canada can sorry me”.  The grammar may differ, but uttering this phrase is pretty much a Canadian right of passage.

It can mean “hey”, “speak up”, “fuck you”, or “give me the fish of your brother, Raoul”.  It is the Northern version of Aloha.  It can be healing, and it can be damaging.  Wield with care…

“Say you’re sorry” we were taught as children.  This is not an act of remorse, but of bowing to social norms.  It is a returning to our instructed way of being.  Where there are discrepancies of power, an apology is merely a sign of compliance.

“I’m so—rrrry.” we said as a teenagers.  This was not an act of remorse, but an act of rebellion.  It says “I have obeyed.  I have apologized.  You have no right to complain.”  It is a statement of defiance.

“I’m sorry,” I learned to say, as a woman.  Often accompanied by tears, and cringing.  It was an act of submission and power in the same moment.  It compelled others to comfort me, protect me, and alleviate my suffering.

“I’m sorry,”  I learned to say, as a poor person.  It was simultaneously an act of compliance, and an act of manipulation.  I have played my part, now you must take care of me.  I am sweet.  I am broken.  I invite you to meet those needs while making yourself feel good about yourself.

“I’m sorry,”  I learned to say, as a rich person.  This was the most complex yet.  It meant that I recognized the injustice—I could see it.  It was also an injustice of its own—a request for absolution or reassurance, or in some way making this about my feelings again.  And it was a recognition.  That I even care about absolution is a recognition that the person I am apologizing to holds power over me in some way.  One of the most noticeable things about shifting from poor to wealthy was the immediacy with which I am always absolved when I apologized.

“I’m sorry” I said, as a wife.  It was a statement of hope, of building new patterns and new love.  Of caring about one another’s feelings.

“I’m sorry.”  I said, as a mother of small children.  When in a position of such absolute power myself, I learned that an apology means something entirely different.  It is a recognition of my mistakes, to those that do not have the power to speak of those mistakes without my permission.

“I said I’m sorry.”  I said, as a mother of teenagers.  Again, in power—but not absolute power—the meaning changed.  Drop it.  I said I’m sorry.  What more do you want?  You must stop being hurt.

“I’m sorry,” I learned to say, as a Ministry student.  Often not as an apology at all—offered when someone had died, or tragedy had struck.  I see you are in pain.  I am here, beside you in that.  I am listening.

“I’m sorry.”  I said, as an adult mother.  “I was so young when I started parenting you—there were mistakes.  Wait—I don’t want you to tell me I did the best I could.  I know that.  I am proud that I stepped in and stepped up.  I don’t feel remorse, and I don’t need your comfort.  But I want you to know that I know about the places where I fell short.  We can acknowledge those things.”

“I’m sorry.” I said, as a white person.  What I meant was:  I am in pain over what has happened.  What I said was:  I am one of the good guys.  I am trying.  I see myself as part of the solution, and you will burden me with new guilt and new pain if you say otherwise. (When I began to realize the extent of the genocide in my Country, I began spewing guilt.  This was unfortunate—the question of whether or not I should feel guilty was a distraction.  It brought the focus back to me.  My experience, my culpability, my absolution.  But it was easier to apologize than to listen.)

“I want a FIVE PART APOLOGY!”  one of my children will occasionally insist.  This is something we reserve for times when a simple, ritualistic apology is not enough.  It goes like this:  I am sorry, (name), that I (action taken).  I see that it (statement of impact).  You must feel (statement of feelings).  Next time, I will (commitment to change of behaviour).

There is nothing magical about what you say in a five part apology.  The magic comes in prior to the apology—the listening that has to happen first, in order to get it right.

New Year’s resolution:  Before saying sorry, I will ask myself some questions.  I will ask myself which sorry I am saying.  And why.

Even though it’s easier to apologize than to listen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: