“I know what I did was wrong. I’m truly sorry I hurt you. I promise I won’t do it again.” Three short sentences that took all my strength to heave to the surface of my conscience and say aloud to the person I love most. For days, I had tested the words out silently then struggled to breathe afterward. I’d had second thoughts, then second thoughts about my second thoughts. Would my apology be accepted? How long might it be before I could hope to be forgiven: months? Years? A lifetime? My daily life as I knew it, my future, my entire world were at risk of being changed forever.
As a teen, a popular song had convinced me that “Love Means You Never Have to Say You’re Sorry”. Now, as a life-worn adult, I’ve come to believe that, in fact, love means being completely willing to say you’re sorry – humbly, sincerely, promptly – no matter what. I believe apologies are strong medicine – with the power to heal the world.
I’ve had to learn some things from the School of How-Not-To about apologizing properly. Today’s self-preservation doctrine has popularized phrases like “mistakes may have been made”, “I regret any harm that may have been caused” and “I’m sorry if others felt hurt by my actions”. I’ve tried a few of these artful dodges myself, and I can tell you: they don’t work. In fact, I’ve learned that these anti-apologies just rub salt in the wound.
Believing in apologies doesn’t come easily. It’s easier to believe in forgiveness – even for the most horrendous offenses. Somehow forgiving doesn’t seem to demand quite as much of me. Apologies leave me vulnerable, exposed, at risk of being attacked.
Apologies have also freed me. They’ve healed deep wounds, in my self-esteem and in my relationships with others. Apologies have let me move forward with my life. Even when the other person hasn’t been willing or able or ready to forgive, making a sincere apology has allowed me to forgive myself, to look at myself in the mirror without flinching.
In the victim-offender reconciliation work that I do, I’m continually surprised at how often people are willing to set aside demands for financial restitution when they receive a sincere and humble apology from the offending party. Could apologies be even more powerful than the almighty dollar? Well, I wouldn’t have believed that if I hadn’t personally witnessed it over and over again.
When I was a kid and committed some offense against my brothers, a friend or a neighbor, Dad would command, “Say you’re sorry!” I’d mumble, “Sorry.” “Say it like you mean it,” Dad would demand, and I’d loudly repeat “SORRY!” I didn’t grasp what “say it like you mean it” really meant. But I think I’m finally getting it. Three simple parts: “I was wrong. I’m sorry I hurt you. I promise I won’t do it again”. Simple, but not easy.
I believe apologies have the power to heal the world. They’ve definitely healed mine.
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