Growing With “I’m Sorry”

woman-alone-in-church

“It is when we are angry at our own mistakes that we tend most of all to deny ourselves for love of ourselves. We want to shake off the hateful thing that has humbled us. In our rush to escape the humiliation of our own mistakes, we run head-first into the opposite error—seeking comfort and compensation. And so we spend our lives running back and forth from one attachment to another.”
—Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

Humiliation gets me every time.

In the flush of my own error, I feel the heat rising in my face as anger and shame radiate from my ears. I know I’ve done wrong, I know I’ve hurt someone, and I’m caught in this panicked moment between racing to make myself feel better or actually walking straight into the humiliation.

It takes a lot of humble pie to choose the latter.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I have indeed chosen the latter. I don’t want to hide behind any kind of facade or rush to compensate for my inadequacy. I’ve chosen to take what responsibility I can for my own beliefs and actions. This includes asking for forgiveness for the people I’ve hurt.

Now let’s say I’ve offered my apology and I’m waiting in that tense space for the response.

“Oh that’s all right. It wasn’t a big deal anyway.”

Huh?

I just spent minutes/hours/days/weeks struggling to realize the depth of what I’ve done, and I receive a “no big deal”? How does that work?

Like compliments, apologies are difficult eels for us to grasp. We don’t like touching them – they’re slimy and cold. And when we do touch them, we want to be rid of them as fast as we possibly can. We want to sweep away the confrontation or any memory of the pain. As badly as we want to anesthetize our own guilt in the first place, we are just as quick to numb the reconciling journey.

Brushing genuine apologies off is our mechanism to restoring our own sense of normalcy.

Yet it’s our dismissive behaviour that we believe exhibits grace that’s actually undermining the healing process. When someone downplays what I’ve done to them, I’m left wondering why in the world an apology was necessary in the first place. There’s no honest feedback about the extent of the damage I actually caused.

To be sure, there are situations that I blow out of proportion that merit only a ‘no big deal’ response. It helps me learn how deeply my attitudes and behaviours affect others (or not!). Not every situation needs to be a long drawn-out ordeal.

Likewise, a humble apology will not cover a multitude of sins when I’ve blown it big time. People might be justifiably furious with me and return my apology with rage or shame. In the same vein, I might be the one with a good handle on the situation and the response from the other person is blown out of proportion.

Life gets freakishly messy, doesn’t it?

What I’m trying to get at specifically here is our propensity to toss away opportunity after opportunity to receive apologies well. The person in front of me may not have the best feelings for me in the moment, but a decisive act to explain just how deeply I’ve hurt them or offended them actually infuses the healing process with courage and movement rather than stagnates it.

It keeps that humiliation space wide open for me a bit longer, but only in the short-term. When someone is courageous enough to explain the effects my attitudes and actions had on them, we both grow as people. When we dismiss each other’s attempts at reconciling for the sake of conflict denial or fear, we both miss out on ways to journey farther together.

I know I don’t really want to hear how deeply my words or actions actually hurt someone else. And the same holds true when I’m hearing an apology from someone else: I’d rather just get it over and done with as fast as humanly possible so that I can shove through the conflict rather than deal with it.

I don’t want to be honest about how badly the other person hurt me or offended me. I’m afraid people will think I’m too sensitive, too angry, too judgy, too demanding, too “_____”. It doesn’t matter. If I’m not seen as being able to graciously and quietly accept an apology, I’m afraid people will see me as a hypocrite or as unforgiving. And since Jesus was all about forgiveness, it’s hard to be honest about anger or hurt or betrayal.

This awkward apologetic dance will never be perfect or perfected, I think. I think we’re meant to stumble around and eventually come to a place of mutual peace and understanding. We can learn to own up to our anger, we can learn to give forgiveness lavishly, and we can also learn how honesty in our reconciliation journeys bears sweeter fruit than over-exaggerated anger or under-stated hurt.

But what a gut-wrenching journey to walk.

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