The power of apology

By Caitlin Kelly

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“I’m sorry.”

Two simple words — but impossible for some people to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of an apology, and its limitations.

As I head into the home stretch of the fall semester teaching college, a mix of freshmen and seniors, it’s been interesting dealing with a few students whose behaviors, whether selfish, short-sighted or just plain rude, seemed an obvious prelude to their prompt, sincere apology.

Hah!

One keeps wandering into our class late, apparently mistaking it for a 24-hour diner, something she can graze at will; only by informing her I would lock the classroom to the tardy did she get my point to arrive early or on time.

Another took a week to express regret for an outburst in class, after I emailed him and made clear how deeply offended I was.

Who raises these people?

But apologies are merely the opening statement, as some people are skilled at offering pretty, apparently sincere “sorry!” sound like something they actually mean.

Until they do the same thing again. And again. And again.

An apology worth its weight is one followed by the words: “It won’t happen again” — and the active proof of same. As a writer, I earn my living through words, but words impress me little. Action is what counts.

An apology also requires, even demands, the listener’s forgiveness, which itself requires their trust, relying on the very bond that’s been broken by bad behavior, whether the offender’s rudeness, insubordination, incompetence, forgetfulness, abuse, infidelity…

And some people can find offense in the mildest of statements, misreading tone or language as an insult when none was meant, plunging you into an abyss of faux repentance just to keep the peace.

I grew up around people who offered plenty of reasons to apologize for their behavior, but rarely did.

Apologizing isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill, both personally and professionally. I’m fortunate enough to have been forgiven by most of those to whom I’ve apologized, and grateful when they have.

We all screw up. It’s what happens next that determines the outcome.

Have you ever refused to offer an apology?

Have you ever wanted one that never came?

The secret of a lasting marriage is…

Husband Crèche
Husband Crèche (Photo credit: dullhunk)

By Caitlin Kelly

Forgiveness.

My second wedding anniversary, to my second husband, arrives soon — September 17 — here’s a link to a description of that lovely day, with photos.

We’d been together for 11 years already when we finally tied the knot, in a small wooden 100+ year old church on an island in the harbor of my hometown, Toronto.

I loved him, but just couldn’t imagine taking vows with someone so different from me: Buddhist/Christian; American/Canadian; 30 years at the same employer/self-employed; Hispanic/Anglo; passive/aggressive; meticulous/spontaneous.

For many years, we fought, bitterly — two stubborn mid-life journo’s, both long-divorced with no kids. Two people who arrived in New York from cities far away, both determined to make our mark in the most sharp-elbowed city in the world.

It’s not easy to switch at day’s end from being someone able to beat ferocious competitors all day long to being sweet and pliable at home.

We do have tempers, and we were both well-bullied as teenagers.

It left us wary, hair-trigger, thin-skinned.

This blog post at Salon, written by an American woman who admitted she hit her husband, provoked many comments:

My husband and I weren’t even married yet when I first hit him. Afterward, I tried to rationalize what happened. I told myself I hadn’t hurt him. How could my scrawny 5’4” self actually hurt his strapping 6’2” frame, right? I swore it wouldn’t happen. But it did anyway.

My anger became my biggest secret. Whenever I commiserated with my sister or best friend  about our husbands, I would agree that, yes, men are maddening. But I would always leave out the the part about me hitting or slapping mine. I wasn’t lying exactly. Besides, I’d tell myself, it hardly ever happens.

But I knew it was wrong. Being a child who hits inanimate objects is one thing, but being a grown woman who directs her rages into her husband’s face is something else entirely. Each time it happened, I’d apologize profusely. Each time, my husband would forgive me, and I’d vow it would never happen again. But it always did.

Why is forgiveness top of mind right now?

It might be living in New York — where two prominent local politicians both betrayed their wives and got caught, yet both are running for office again.

It might be reaching mid-life, when some once-egregious and unforgivable sins begin to lose some of their power.

It might be the basic realization that none of us is perfect. We will, inevitably, hurt and disappoint and dismay and embarrass the people who adore us, and vice versa. Without the salve of forgiveness, no wound can heal.

It might watching a couple we introduced at our dinner table now divorce.

rings

Our wedding rings.

Yet Jose and I still spat. It’s not nice.

The other day, after a rough week, we went for lunch in a friend’s garden, and the universe decided to teach us both a lesson.

Within minutes — for the first time since our childhoods — we were both stung by wasps, I on the ring finger of my left hand (where a wedding ring usually goes) and he above his right eye, the one he uses to focus when taking photos.

We were in fucking agony!

But all we could do was fuss and coo, fetching ice and aspirin and trying to soothe one another.

It took a wasp’s venom.

But I’m paying attention, dammit.

What has saved your marriage?