Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Having the grace to apologize

Having the grace to apologize

Nobody likes apologizing – it seems like confessing that you are in the wrong – that’s probably why people dislike it!

Not liking it is probably also partly to do with our sense of self-worth, the esteem that is vital to our personality – to our standing with others.  

Apologizing can be seen as a weakness looked at this way  - when it is seen as little more than a confession – an admission almost that you are less than perfect.  An apology in this light seems to be saying that you are weaker – not as good – not as intelligent or able as the person you are apologizing to.  Apologizing means losing face.

Yet the ability and the willingness to apologize for having wronged someone or done something wrong is more a sign of strength than weakness.  After all, everybody makes mistakes – nobody’s perfect, and admitting that you are only human after all is surely a reaffirmation of one’s strength – a statement that says that you are proud to be human, or at least that you are not ashamed of it.

And yet apologizing is rarely done, and when it is done, it is often because someone in a more influential position thinks you should or has told you that you should.  Actually, apologizing because you have been told to is no apology – not a real one – not an apology from the heart, which is where all valid and honest apologies must originate.

No, an apology that has been forced on a person is no apology at all.  Or if it is, then the person apologizing has come to realize that one was necessary after all – that the forcing itself was inevitable – that the person forcing you to apologize was right to do so.

An apology from the heart – if it really is from the heart, has a tremendous effect on the person being apologized to, unless the offence is so great that no apologies can ever atone for the wrong done.

A sincere and timely apology has the effect of a sort of metaphorical bowing to the other, an elevating of the person being apologized to, and, on the face of it, at first at any rate, of a lowering of the person apologizing.

Remember sitting in a motionless railway carriage in a station when the train on the next tracks begins to move forward.  For an instant, it feels as if you are moving backwards.  It is an illusion, of course, and when you look at the platform after the other train has gone, you quickly realize that it was just that; an illusion.

So it is when apologizing; at first the elevating of one feels like the lowering of the other, but that too is an illusion - of a different sort.  What is really happening is that both are being elevated in each other’s mind.  

Apologizing means that everybody wins – it is the opposite of a zero sum game – where nobody wins, which is what happens when offences are left to fester – when no one apologizes despite one being needed.

In some cultures, losing face is the very last thing to do – so situations where an apology is necessary are avoided – people try hard to make sure that they don’t transgress – and for a while this works – a society in which people try not to offend others must be a pleasant one.  However, and unfortunately, no such society exists, for no collection of human beings can be without them.  Apologies are needed in any society if it is going to run along smooth and peaceful paths.

An apology, particularly one made in a society where apologizing is a rarity, is either taken as a sign of weakness, or as a sign of strength.  It is up to both to work on which way it is to be taken; for the person apologizing should know that having the honesty and self-confidence to say he is sorry for what he has done amounts to a huge affirmation of his humanity; for the person being apologized to, the other person’s apology amounts to what is in effect a tribute from the other – a laying at his feet of the thing the other one holds most dear: his self-esteem.

When a person apologizes sincerely, he is paying the other a great complement, and sometimes new friendships are formed  – apologizing makes us more human.

Robert L. Fielding


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