I’ll Take a Mulligan, Please

Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.


I Sure am Sorry I Got Caught Robbing that Bank

This is my new expression whenever I hear someone close to me offer a pseudo-apology.  Readers who have kept an eye on this blog lately know I have posted instructions on the correct—and incorrect—ways to apologize.  Not to throw anyone under the bus, lately I have heard quite a few apologies that, candidly, miss the mark.

To recap the basics, “Robbing that bank was wrong,” expresses regret for my actions.  “I sure am sorry I got caught robbing that bank,” expresses regret for the consequences of my actions but no regret for my actual actions.  Other consequence statements are:

I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you misunderstood me.
I’m sorry you took it that way.
I’m sorry you got frustrated.

See the difference?  All this regret is about what YOU did, not about what I did.  It says, “This situation went south on your side of the street.  My side of the street is looking pretty good over here.”  A genuine apology requires taking responsibility for what I chose to do or to say.  Expressing sadness or regret for another’s response is nothing more than deflection thinly disguised as an apology.  It is not a legitimate apology.

Now let’s throw in a curve ball for extra credit.  Are either of these statements a legitimate apology?

I’m sorry my words frustrated you.
I’m sorry my actions hurt your feelings.

Nice try, but these examples STILL express regret for consequences.  Just throwing “my words” or “my actions” into the sentence does not constitute taking responsibility for the wrongness of my words or actions.  That would look more like this:

I said something I shouldn’t have said.
I didn’t intend harm, but I see now I caused it and I regret what I did.

Now for advanced placement apology, what should you do if you actually believe you did absolutely nothing wrong?  Let’s say you are convinced your side of the street is spic-and-span, and the person who is upset with you is overreacting or is reacting to something other than what you actually did.  I always say when in doubt, go with the truth.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings and ask for their help to see their side.  Something like this:

I see you’re upset.  That’s distressing because I care about you.  Will you help me understand exactly what I did?

I hope you don’t get, “It’s your tone of voice,” or “You flashed that look,” because subjective observations aren’t terribly actionable.  I hope you get an answer that is truly illuminating, and you should be prepared to receive (i.e. don’t block) those rays of illumination shining your way.  You might, however, get an answer you don’t understand.  You may have to ask questions to grasp exactly what sparked the response.  You might also sense the person is responding to something you didn’t actually do or say.  Sometimes a harmless comment triggers a harmful memory.  Can you find a gentle and compassionate way to ask the person if there is an older, deeper wound swirling into the present angst?  Draw on your spiritual strength and compassion to turn conflict into an opportunity to encourage healing and intimacy.

If, failing all of this, you can’t rise above the blame game and remain convinced of your blamelessness, ask for time to think before further discussion.  A little distance can change your and the other’s perspectives.

Join the conversation.  Can you share examples of an apology gone wrong?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making Amends

Of all the steps in teshuvah, I am especially interested in restitution, or making amends.  The Jewish and Twelve Step traditions recognize great power in this step, but Christians place little emphasis on it as a step towards healing or reconciliation with God.  What are we missing?

When we realize we have done something that hurt another person, it is natural to seek that person’s forgiveness as well as God’s.  In our house, we try to avoid the word “sorry” in apologies.  There are just too many ways it can go wrong.  There’s the pre-teen, sullen, single-word sentence uttered with downcast eyes that really means, “If I say nothing, maybe they’ll get bored and leave me alone.”  There’s the teenage, “Dad!  I said I was sorry, ok?” screamed defiantly and followed by a door slam that shouts, “No remorse here!”  Then there’s the one I personally despise, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” that actually means, “I’m good.  This is your problem.”   All of them remind me of the country western song, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I know how sorry you are.”

I encourage family members not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent.  It’s just better to ask for time to think about it.  When some remorse can be found, the script goes, “I realize how wrong I was.  Will you forgive me?”  Thanks go to my godfather who supplied the script.  We tend to do better with that.

Restitution is more than an apology, though.  The idea of restitution is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged or to do it symbolically if we can’t do it directly.  “I’m sorry I broke your lamp when I was drunk,” is an apology.  Replacing or repairing the lamp amends the offense.  If someone gets drunk, drives, and kills somebody in a traffic accident, he can’t go back and “un-kill” the person who died.  Becoming an organ donor is a symbolic amend that can give life back to someone in the future.  If I was careless with someone’s feelings, maybe donating to a cause the person cares about is a symbolic way of restoring care.

Of course, this is all hypothetical for me.  I have been practicing confession in the Episcopal tradition regularly for years, and I have never approached restitution as a part of the process.  Realizing the prominent role it plays in other traditions brought a real blind spot in my personal practice to light.  I take absolution to heart, burning my confession notes and not looking back.  Believe me, when I set about writing a book about confession, I would have loved to have had 10 years of notes to refresh my memory.  I can’t honestly regret burning them, though.  It’s wonderful to feel free.  Here’s the thing, though.  While I don’t feel burdened by my past, I do feel disconnected from it.

Making amends not only mends bridges in broken relationships.  Perhaps more significantly, it also mends bridges to a broken past.  Instead of regretting or recoiling from the past, restitution builds on it, allowing us to raise something good out of the ashes of something bad.  I suspect I’d have a very different feeling about my past if I had had the fortitude and courage to have made amends.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever fled the past instead of building on it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.