Not the most exciting essay today. As I’ve said before, there are some days where I simply want to get down a particular set of thoughts that have been kicking around in my head for a while. Today is one of those days.
I have this tendency to reduce things to a small aphorism, or a brief set of lists. I started doing this in my mid twenties, probably because, at the time, my life seemed so chaotic and aimless that I was looking to give it some direction and focus. Some of these aphorisms and lists proved to be flimsy, but others have stood the test of time; I just want to start sharing them.
Today, I’m just going to write about apologizing.
For an apology to work, the person doing the apologizing has to do three things:
1) Truly understand why the other person wants an apology;
2) Give a genuine apology; and
3) Resolve never again to do whatever it was that caused the other person to want an apology in the first place.
Too often, when people give apologies, one of these three things is missing. That’s when the apology often does more harm than good, because an insincere apology often just makes the other person feel even more resentful.
The key trait for a person to have for these three things to happen is empathy. They need to really see that they’ve done something wrong, and they have to want to make it right.
I stop there for a moment, because I can say with authority: I think just about everyone knows what it is to receive an apology that lacks one of these things, and whenever it does, there’s always that feeling that the person isn’t apologizing because they really really mean it. In fact, when an apology lacks one of these things, it often feels as if the person giving the apology really doesn’t care at all.
In fact, when an apology lacks the first one of these things, it often feels as if the person giving the apology has a truly devious motive: they’re just “apologizing” to put the other person on the defensive. It is often the case that when people give apologies without any understanding of why they’re giving them that they’re unfortunately hoping that the other person will say “I’m sorry, but I really don’t think you mean it when you say your sorry.” Then the first person scores a sick, double triumph: they’re still able to feel no remorse for what they did, and they can then assume the mantle of the victim, saying that the other person is hurting them by not accepting their apology.
“I said I was sorry, and that other person is still holding a grudge,” they say.
And then it gets even more sick, because the person who gave the completely worthless apology continues the abuse. Except this time, they say that it is they, and not the person they hurt, who deserves an apology from the person they hurt, because the person they hurt is being cruel and thoughtless by not accepting that insincere apology.
I call this apology “The Ike Turner Apology,” after singer Tina Turner’s abusive husband. Again and again, Ike would abuse Tina, and then come in the next day with roses, and she would rebuff his apology. Then Ike would get angry, saying that Tina was being ungrateful accepting an apology that came from someone who didn’t think he’d done anything wrong—after all, as he often said when justifying his abuse, Tina “looked at me angry”—and the abuse would continue.
And of course, in the case of Ike Turner, that key third element was missing. Besides not really thinking that he did anything wrong—and therefore not offering a truly sincere apology—he went right back to doing what he did to warrant an apology (not to mention criminal proceedings) in the first place.
It would seem that we live in a time where a number of people are unable to do these three simple things. Without naming any specific people who come to mind (I will say that one of them has a great deal of power at the moment, perhaps more than anyone else on earth), I just notice that there’s a real shortage of the tendency to look at someone and then Own, Atone…and stop.
It’s been a quarter of a century since I made that simple list, and so far, for me, the truth of it remains. It just doesn’t take much to truly apologize. It only requires doing three things.