The best apology is like an egg: simple, bald, fragile. If I fumble it, I’ll really make a mess.
“Forgive me,” is a start.
The next step is the real kicker. “For” — for failing to acknowledge you, for failing to remember your name, for failing to think, for failing. Or for doing: for saying cruel words, for acting out, for lying, for stealing, for betraying.
A good apology takes responsibility. It says, “I did it.” It does not shift blame, it says, “I’m sorry” and “I did it.”
Then sit back. Wait. See what happens.
There may be anger. There may be sorrow. There may be fake forgiveness or self-serving forgiveness, as the Gingeet Rabbi has described in her blog. Or there may be a really good conversation in which you will learn something. This is the thing about a good apology: no matter how predictable you think the other person is, you can’t know for sure what comes after the apology. The better the apology, the more unpredictable the response.
When I was a child growing up in Tennessee, I used to count the mosquito bites on my body. I could tell you exactly how many I had at any given time, where they were, and which ones itched the most. I could not escape the bugs, but I could keep a perfect accounting of what they were doing to me.
I was on the watch for every slightest itch. I knew when one bit me, and I knew when the bite began to tingle. I paid careful attention to each of them. Because I was always thinking about them, I could not resist scratching at them. As a result, I was miserable most of the summer.
It was years before it dawned on me that some of the misery was the fault of the mosquitoes, and some of it was my own. By focussing all my waking attention on those bug bites, I drove myself crazy. As an adult, I learned that the less attention I paid to them, the less they bothered me. Now I will sometimes get a bothersome bite, but mostly, I notice them, chalk them up to the fact that this world is not created just for my comfort, and go about my business.
The same can be true of hurts from other people. We can choose to keep careful track of them and to catalog every twinge. Some of us monitor every slight like I did those bug bites, focussing attention on them, picking at them, scratching at them, and complaining to the world about our catalog of grudges and woe.
The good news is that unlike the mosquitoes, there’s a cure. The cure is the month of Elul, the month for apologies and mending broken relationships. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m sorry I never thanked you for that favor” I have the choice to accept the apology. If there is something I need to make things right, I can ask for it. I don’t have to trust that person again, if they are not trustworthy, but I can still be healed of that bothersome little wound.
I can also choose to cherish the anger. I can refuse an apology, and say that nothing will ever make it right. And that may even be true: some hurts go very deep. But do I want to carry it forever? Do I really want to keep scratching at it? Or do I want to make room for some healing, not for the person who offended, but for myself?
The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9
if we are normal people leading normal lives, there are sometimes people to whom we to apologize. The offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.
A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process. Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”
Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.
Now: what do you say? Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.” It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot. Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken.” All of those are useful replies.
What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “What do you want? For me to fall down?” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot! And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”
The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended — not at this point — what has to be attended to is the hurt. That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings/ ran over your dog / etc.” And no subjunctive mood nonsense, either: none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff; that makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just makes people angrier.
Then, after the other person’s reality is acknowledged — then it’s time for the explanation, if you want. “I wanted to tell you how nice the party was, not imply criticism about it!”
And if there was damage done (real or perceived), there’s the question of making it right: “What can I do to make this up to you?” It’s a powerful statement, because it disarms the aggrieved party. What will make this right? If the deed was bad enough (you ran over their dog with your car) it may be that nothing will fix it, and that’s sad. You made the effort to apologize, and that will have to do. But if they say, “Buy me a new dog,” then it’s time for restitution.
I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with the people we love.
Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:
1. “I am sorry that I _____ your _____.” Say it with eye contact, in a sincere tone of voice.
1a. (optional) “I intended _____, but instead it came across as _____, and I am sorry about that.
2. “What can I do to make this right?” or “Here’s what I have done to make sure this never happens again.”
3. Do it, if you can. If you can’t, make an offer: “I can’t afford _____ but here is what I can and will do _____.”
That’s it. That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?