Friday, December 17, 2010

Apologies 101

This morning, I realized with a tiny stomach ache that December, the month I heart-venti,  is already half-over.  I don’t just heart December because it means holidays, and having children home, and eating crumb cake for no reason.  I like that December is a blank-inside card;  a month of being selfless and charitable, of “opening our shut up hearts to our fellow man.” It’s the time to say and do the things we would have over the past eleven months if we’d made the time or seized the moment. Relationship tune-up month, December is. 

So, while I turn on the lights and hang up my Serious coat here in the long-neglected blog of “Really? I knew that too but didn’t either!” I’ll share something relationship-y which I recently brought back to my own attention. 

Every so often, while my children were growing up we’d have a quiet stretch – in heavy traffic, walking through a mall, waiting for the appetizer – when they’d ask me my opinion.  When this happens in conversation with an older teenager, we parents-of-older-teenagers know there is a tiny window of opportunity to hold the floor before something more interesting happens. 

Once, after we discussed what color boots she should buy, my daughter asked what I thought it was that made relationships work. 

This one was easy.

Respect, affection and tenderness for starters, I told her.

“Okay, and…” said her face. 

“And, always, always be ready to say two things,” I said.

“I love you?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“And, I love you?”
“No. And, I forgive you.”

The super glue of relationships, these two little words.  Yet for all the power they  wield, even reasonable people, even people who know they’re in the wrong, even people who say “love you” at the end of every phonecall with a child or spouse, even people who need more than anything to be forgiven, choke on:

“I’m sorry, please forgive me.” 

People know when they’re wrong.  People regret things all the time that they will try to reconcile or make right or hope will be forgotten in time rather than apologize. I wonder, what it is we think we’re keeping by withholding an apology that is more important than the relationship we could be saving?  Why is it such an expensive thing to say: 

“I’m sorry, please forgive me.”

Or, the close second which is trickier because after we say it, we must shut up and listen: “Tell me how I hurt you.”

A genuine “I’m sorry,” should not be confused with the faux-apology:  “I’m sorry if I upset you,” which is only another way of saying, “I’m sorry you’re too much of a jerk to reason with.” Or the even less expensive, “I’m sorry if you’re upset,” which is just a waste of time. 

I have encountered two situations this month that involved the “I’m Sorry” aversion.  In one, I was the sorry party.  In the other, I wasn’t.   But with a seriously ill parent in my December life right now, I’ve become too aware of the opportunities in every day relationships to choose pride over love, and righteousness over intimacy.  My experience has shown me that the things we give up with an apology only shrink as we tighten our grip on them.  In the case where I was wrong, it took days, but I said so.  In the days since, I’ve gained something I still can’t find the word for but it’s making me sleep better and enjoy crumb cake more.

Life is short.  If you’re wrong, apologize. And if you’re on the other end of an apology, forgive.

But you already knew that.

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