The Art of the Apology

Easter Lily


First, a confession: I am ever-so-slightly sensitive to excessive criticism, sudden and prolonged silence, thoughtlessness, neglect, math, bad manners, misunderstandings, suggestions that I should do more housework, suggestions that I should get more exercise, suggestions that I am less than brilliant/sexy/gorgeous (all ridiculous, but still), excessive noise, reminders of my mistakes, people not eating the gorgeous food I cook for them, people not raving about the gorgeous food I cook for them, pranks (I wouldn’t if I were you), being yelled at, being yelled at in a British accent (it’s never happened, but I just know it would be worse), being unfairly blamed, violence — especially involving children, margarine (no), being made a fool of, betrayal, ungratefulness, and efforts to proselytize me. This is a partial list.


You won’t be surprised, then, to hear that I have given some careful thought over the years to the Art of the Apology. Sadly, in our every-man-for-himself/every-woman-for-herself culture, it is a rather lost art. A humble, sincere apology is a miraculous thing –an eternal thing, really. Deliver one –just one– and watch it show up on a thousand other doorsteps, echo through a thousand other lives.


Too bad apologizing makes us all feel like we’re about to die.


First, of course, you have to recognize when an apology is needed. A few easy ones to get started: if you tell everyone except your bewildered boyfriend that you have broken up with him, then you must apologize; if you unintentionally perform your famous, dead-on, viciously clever Michele Bachman imitation for one of her local campaign staffers, then you must apologize; if you act like Kim Kardashian or Snooki or are fans of either horror show, you must apologize.   If you’re the kind of boob who routinely asks grooms-to-be when they’re scheduled to have their balls removed (translation: get married), especially in the presence of their fiancees, you should assume that most of what you say is offensive and apologize every time you speak.


A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s. 


Once you are aware that you’ve caused injury or offense, you must decide if and how much that actually matters to you; without sincerity, your apology is worth nothing. If you fully intend to keep on choosing the trappings of the world over the people in it, if you fully intend to keep on using the shards of your own broken heart to break everyone else’s, if you fully intend to keep clinging too tight or running too fast or getting too emotional or getting too rational –whatever it is you do when you’re most afraid –then there’s no point apologizing; you’ll never be done and everyone will know you don’t mean it.


But if you do mean it …if you know you’ll keep making the same mistakes and re-breaking the same hearts but you really want the chance to try again anyway, then here are the kind of words people long to hear when they’ve been wounded:


“I’m so sorry I hurt you. I never want to hurt you –you’re important to me. I know I criticized you/neglected you/yelled at you in a Southern accent…and I know I’ve done that more than once. I was afraid/angry/lonely/sad about ______ and I took it out on you. I imagine it hurts a little bit more every time I behave like this and I hate that. Please forgive me and let me try and make it better.”


If you’re like me, your hands will shake a little bit (or a lot) when you apologize like this. Your peripheral vision might close in for a second or two and you’ll hear a high-pitched ringing in your ears. Your chest will burn, your voice will crack, your bones will feel like they’re melting. You’ll wonder fleetingly if this is a heart attack…maybe a stroke. A seizure?


Yes. All of them. Humbling yourself enough to say you’re sorry and really mean it feels like every physical affliction you’ve ever seen on Grey’s Anatomy (we all know you’ve seen at least two seasons). A pure apology is risky, excruciating, soul-expanding; like the best works of art, it’s a shard from your own broken heart used to rebuild someone else’s.  That’s why we always remember genuine art. That’s why we always remember a genuine apology. And that’s why both are so damned expensive.

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