It’s a simple thing: we do wrong, and we apologize. Simple, yes, but not always easy. Indeed, the very ease of an apology can often signal its insincerity or glibness. Too many apologies are more about saving face, about getting out of the hot seat.
For years, I’ve known how it feels to receive those “easy” apologies. How infuriating! How insulting, even! When my nephew has forgotten to do his dishes, say, or clean out the cat box, I’ve cut him off at the S word. “I don’t want an apology,” I’ve said. “I want the dishes done.” And with larger offenses, “sorry” can feel even more of a dodge, especially when it slides into explanation or defense.
Lately, I found myself doing exactly that.
Here’s what happened: Three of us had decided, after much agonizing, that we needed to break from two others in our writers’ group. By email.
Ouch. I know, I thought it, too—but not in time.
I’d been too involved in shaping the wording of the email so it would acknowledge the unhappy decision, cop to the awkwardness, give reasons without seeming to attack anyone personally, and ask for “no hard feelings.” I’d hit Send, on behalf of the three of us, yes—but from my email address.
And angry response came quickly from K, one of the two. I felt awful. A friend sympathized. I’m so sorry you had to be the target, she said. Another friend asked, Well, what did you expect?
I certainly hadn’t meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. I certainly hadn’t intentionally sounded (as the recipient found me) “mean-spirited” and “ambiguous.”
But I had still sent an email that—when I thought about it—would have pained me deeply if I’d been the recipient. I needed to apologize. I wanted to apologize. I had to apologize.
I quickly typed out a reply, and saved it in my Drafts folder. Each time I re-read (and edited) it, I came closer to the fact that I was as sorry about being the target of anger as I was about having sent the email. Maybe more. How much of my apology was wanting to make nice, because I didn’t want K mad at me?
Feeling wronged often carries a whiff of self-justification. But so can apologizing. Even as we acknowledge our role in doing wrong, we want to explain. We want to look good, we want to take the high road, to have the last word. Yes, we feel lousy about what we did—but even there, an apology can come across as more about me, feeling lousy, than about you, whom I hurt.
A couple days went by. Each time I prepared to hit Send, I stopped. My urgency had gotten me in trouble the first time, when I’d sent the offending email, and many other times in my life, when my anxiety to Do Something means that I act first, feel later. This time, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And yes, I was probably overthinking.
I didn’t regret the decision to reconfigure our writers’ group. But in thinking about how we took the “easier” path by not discussing the problems in person, I saw how we’d made an awkward situation more hurtful.
I hate confrontation, but couching it in carefully arranged words doesn’t make it any less confrontational. “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me,” verse 5 of the Twenty-third Psalm reads—not a table in the next room, or down the hall behind a closed door but right here, right before me.
I pared my apology down to two sentences, wrote it by hand, placed it in an envelope. I’m sorry, I wrote. We could’ve handled this better, and we didn’t. I kept the note at the top of the stairs for another day or two. And then I slipped it into a mailbox on my way home from the store one day.
I’m still nervous about running into K, but now when I do, I think I can look her in the face.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.