“Saying Sorry” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – February 5, 2017
Opening Words – from Swing Time by Zadie Smith
The brain is connected to the heart and the eyes. – it’s all visualization, all of it!
– Want it, see it, take it. No apologies. I don’t apologize ever for what I want! But I see you – and I see that you spend your life apologizing! It’s like you’ve got survivor’s guilt or something! But we’re not in Bendigo anymore. You’ve left Bendigo, right? Like Baldwin left Harlem. Like Dylan left wherever . . . he was from. Sometimes you gotta get out —
sorry” by Ntozake Shange
one thing i don’t need
is any more apologies
i got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
i don’t know what to do wit em
they dont open doors
or bring the sun back
they dont make me happy
or get a mornin paper
didnt nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars
cuz a sorry
i am simply tired
i didnt know
i was so important toyou
i’m gonna haveta throw some away
i cant get to the clothes in my closet
for alla the sorries
i’m gonna tack a sign to my door
leave a message by the phone
‘if you called
to say yr sorry
i dont use em anymore’
i let sorry/ didnt meanta/ & how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it
letta sorry soothe yr soul/ i’m gonna soothe mine
you were always inconsistent
doin somethin & then bein sorry
beatin my heart to death
talkin bout you sorry
i will not call
i’m not goin to be nice
i will raise my voice
& scream & holler
& break things & race the engine
& tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face
& i will list in detail everyone of my wonderful lovers
& their ways
i will play oliver lake
& i wont be sorry for none of it
i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself
Sometimes my work as a minister makes me feel like I am apologizing a lot. And it is often for things that I haven’t done. Some people may feel like they have been left out of a committee discussion, and so I must find a way to make sure their voice has been heard, or at least make them feel better that I have heard them, saying “I am sorry that you feel this committee neglected to listen to your input. I am sorry that person refuses to talk to you because they insist they are right, and have judged you in the wrong for their perceived personal upset.” Other times it seems to be me that has caused the hurt. It can seem like I have blasphemed the great Jehovah. These people may feel their religious sensibilities were ignored. They tell me my Sukkoth service was insensitive to Jewish tradition. My Thanksgiving communion was an insult to a real communion, or conversely was too much like one. So I end up saying, I am sorry that I offended you. As a minister I can offer to listen to their concern and try to take it into account in the future. Sometimes just listening is enough. And sometimes on those most glorious of days, a person may actually apologize to me saying something like “I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time.”
When I was in college, one of my friends had a poster on her wall, which said, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Many of you probably immediately remember this popular phrase from the book, and then movie, “Love Story,” released in my first year of college. At one point the Ryan O’Neil character, Oliver, says he is sorry for expressing anger, and another time says, “I’m sorry” after Ali McGraw’s character dies. Saying you are sorry when you spew anger at someone, and saying sorry when you want to tell a loved one that you feel badly for their loss seem like natural, appropriate expressions of this phrase, but then I hear that silly film cliché that love somehow exempts you from saying sorry. I don’t get it.
Our reading today gives the impression that Ntozake Shange is no longer going to say she is sorry, and moreover, that she never wants to hear those insincere words uttered again from the lips of someone who is not sorry. She represents some people, usually female, who seem to be apologizing all the time. We all know this perspective from people who feel like they are getting in the way, even if they have a perfect right to their spot or their share of the pie. They seem to be sorry that they exist, and that their very existence offends someone, usually a man, because they are occupying space. The lead character in the Zadie Smith novel, Swing Time, is the kind of person who always says she is sorry. She is a personal assistant to the pop star Aimee, from whom we hear: “I see that you spend your life apologizing.” But the pop star doesn’t apologize for what she wants. She seems to go and possess it. We hear the plea not to be sorry that she wants a life, and she should go and take what is her due. No one would argue with those who need to stop apologizing for themselves when they pursue what they want in life. We want to encourage this kind of assertiveness in some people.
But others? Not so much. Richard Nixon once said that apologizing was a sign of weakness. In theory, we may say that is not true, but how often do we express remorse for our failure to do as promised or the anger, self-righteousness or judgments we imparted to others. Why do most of us have a tough time saying we are sorry? We might begin with the most extreme example of anyone who cannot admit they are sorry for what they have done. This is of course, our new President. On the campaign trail he told Jimmy Fallon, “I fully think apologizing’s a great thing, but you have to be wrong.” There you have it. Why would you ever apologize, if you are always right? Trump said that if he ever was wrong, he would apologize “sometime in the hopefully distant future.” He can say the rudest, nastiest, angriest things without fear that he might ever need to apologize because he is right. Therefore, there is nothing to be sorry for. So he can say, she is fat, ugly, stupid, or he is a drug addict, rapist, terrorist. Fortunately, we can all say, whew, glad I don’t suffer from that narcissistic personality disorder, but we could still learn a bit about the need to say I’m sorry.
No one says they are sorry as efficiently as the British. A couple of years ago there was a travel piece in the Boston Globe about London which summarized this. The writer noted that a bus that swiftly passed by, did not curtly note “Out of Service,” but instead said, “Sorry, I’m out of service.” It was personalized into an apology. By English custom, any intrusion, impingement, or imposition of any kind requires an apology. The English say sorry eight times a day on average. Now maybe it is merely a matter of following the rules of etiquette and polite behavior. Their manners reveal a readiness to apologize even for things they have not done. These codes of conduct are a bit different than ours, which are often characterized as rude and offensive.
When they say something that seems to have caused a major offense, the British know an apology is required. One of the most famous apologies occurred after John Lennon, when he was a young Beatle, ungraciously stammered that his rock band was more popular than God. Even this rebel acknowledged that he did not mean to say they were greater than the deity, but that people’s priorities were a bit mixed up in their fervor to lionize the famous musicians. He wrote: “I wasn’t saying whatever they’re saying I was saying. I’m sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing.. . I still don’t know quite what I’ve done. I’ve tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I’m sorry.”
So we have run the gamut from those who refuse to apologize because they are never wrong or refuse because the apology has been used as a weapon again them to those who seemingly apologize all the time for lack of self-esteem to those who say sorry as part of national custom. Where do you find yourselves on the continuum of saying sorry? If you have ever felt love for another, you immediately notice the absurdity of never saying you are sorry. People in deep relationships say they are sorry quite often. We all do things that bother or hurt others. Just last week I felt mortified when I realized that I had suggested to Susan Flint that we cancel the Safe Congregation meeting because no one was coming. Unfortunately, our eager to learn intern is trying to attend a variety of meetings, and had told me she was coming. Once we cancelled the meeting all the members of the committee knew, but guess who was forgotten? Jolie drove over here from JP, and waited and waited, and finally called me to ask, what gives? I felt so sorry for forgetting, and making her travel and wait around for nothing. We all make mistakes. We forget. We make a mean comment. We ignore others. We make people wait. But if we cannot apologize or can’t bring ourselves to say I’m sorry, then even a minor offense will begin to erode the relationship. We may think he doesn’t care that he made me wait. She didn’t listen to what I asked for, and I feel like I am not important to her. But saying you are sorry acknowledges that you made a mistake and you want to restore goodwill between you.
If you never make a mistake that inconveniences or hurts someone, then you can leave now, because you must be perfect. Otherwise, let’s all think about how we apologize. It is important to feel some measure of contrition. This is often not the case with public apologies. Politicians specialize in the non-apology apology. They may say their behavior was wrong or it represented some kind of personal failure, but they never truly say, I’m sorry. Is there evidence that we feel bad about what we did? This reminds me of what it is like to try to convince a teenager to say they are sorry for making a parent worry that you do not know where they are, or what condition the car is in, let alone the youth. Perhaps you have had some experience with this. We may be on the receiving end of a sarcastic SORRREEEE! that has no element of actual contrition. Sure some people may need an explanation of what they did wrong so that they actually understand the offense. You say this is how what you did made me feel, and perhaps you can produce some measure of recognition. A little light goes off and the youth realizes they have done something wrong.
But it’s hard to apologize. It means we have to measure ourselves by our own failings. We have to process how guilty we feel or how we hurt someone else. The natural inclination may be to protect ourselves, and so we either avoid apologizing, or more frequently for me, I justify my actions or make excuses. I’m getting old and forgot. I wasn’t feeling well, and was under pressure. I was in a hurry. So the apology may become a way to justify your actions. It deflects the hurt you caused away from you, and sometimes you end up blaming the other person. I was only trying to help you, so I am not going to take the responsibility for breaking it. If you had looked both ways, I might never have hit you with my car. How often do we blame our spouse for provoking a reaction in us, for something we did that we should be apologizing or making amends for. Here’s a clue that when you don’t want to say you’re sorry, it is probably the perfect time to do so. You finally realize you did or said something wrong.
There is one caveat here, and that is the person who apologizes all the time to avoid actually confronting an issue. This may be the person who apologizes for existing, as I referred to before, but it may also be an avoidance mechanism, and so if you are doing it all the time to avoid confronting something important, then when you actually do apologize, it becomes meaningless because you may not be able to distinguish between a real and a fake apology. Perhaps a familiar fake apology is the one that is used for a preemptive strike. You apologize before you hurt someone. My most vivid memory of this was when my father was going to spank me. He would say, “this is going to hurt me more than it is you.” Remember that? Today, it may be less violent than the spanking, perhaps a grounding, or some kind of redress by working off your hurtful action.
I think the most common use of the pre-emptive strike occurs in a medical office. I remember once when my son Joel was little, and the nurse was very timid about administering a shot. She seemed to keep endlessly telling him how much it was going to hurt, as she brandished the needle in front of him. Yet she could not bring herself to actually administer the shot. He began to cry louder and louder, and she became more and more timid. Finally, the doctor could not stand the screaming any longer. She entered the room, grabbed the needle and gave my son the shot. The screaming ended immediately. If anything this illustrates the need to take the medicine. Sure we have to acknowledge that it is hard to say you’re sorry, but you need to do it for the hurt you are about to or have caused. Otherwise it lingers and lingers.
Perhaps the most crucial thing about saying sorry is an admission that you actually mean it. Over the years we have had a variety of admissions of wrong doing by the Vatican and Catholic dioceses all over the world, but how many of them have seemed authentic? Is there a sense that they feel they have done something terribly wrong in their failure to protect the children? How many of the victims felt like there was true sorrow about the actions, and that things could ever change? Sometimes one of these public apologies is merely a time to make the guilty party feel better about themselves, and does not change anything about present or future behavior. One such rare instance of public apology that seemed authentic occurred recently in LaGrange, Georgia. More than three quarters of a century ago a young Black man named Austin Callaway was dragged out of a jail cell by a band of masked white men, then shot and left for dead.
The New York Times reported recently that some people never forgot. The fear, the police malfeasance, and the pervasive racism long obscured the investigation of this crime. Then a week ago last Thursday, the police chief, who is white, issued a rare apology for a Southern lynching. “I sincerely regret and denounce the role our Police Department played in Austin’s lynching, both through our action and our inaction,” Chief Dekmar told a crowd at a traditionally African-American church. “And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.”
He also said that all citizens had the right to expect that their police department “be honest, decent, unbiased and ethical. . . There are relatives here and people who still remember,” he said. “Even if those people are not still alive, down through the generations, that memory is still alive. That’s a burden that officers carry.” Who knows what the future may bring, but at least publicly there was an honest admission of wrong doing, and a resolve to get it right the next time.
One ongoing ritual of any religious organization is how to cleanse yourself of wrong doing. How do you admit that you feel sorry for something you did? How do you atone? How do you move forward? Sorry’ is one of the most powerful words in the English language, provided one can feel and say it at the same time. It’s difficult because you sincerely need to feel the pain of the other person and rise above your ego to say it; it’s powerful because the other person feels understood. You feel shared pain. And when you admit wrong doing and have the courage to say Sorry, it acknowledges the human condition and allows us to move forward, and perhaps have another chance.
Someone once said, “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is saying ‘I love you’ with a wounded heart in one hand and your smothered pride in the other.” It means you care about the other, and are interested in their welfare. Saying sorry is more important than ever in this media age. We all send out emails that express feelings and opinions, but often there is no context to ascertain what the sender means. Tweeting seems even worse, as it presents an opportunity for some at least, to express anger and judgment without any means of remorse.
We all spend a lot of time justifying our actions, when that time could be better spent admitting we are wrong. What to do? Say you were wrong, explain what happened, not as an excuse, but to help understand, not deflect responsibility, have sincere remorse, and finally, think how about you can make amends or move forward. There is tremendous power in listening, and in feeling the pain of another.
Saying you are sorry means focusing on the feelings of the other person more than on your own feelings. Rather than echoing Love Story and never having to say you are sorry, love in a church, in a relationship, in a friendship should mean you should always be ready to say sorry with authenticity, and with humility in instances where you have insulted or hurt or neglected someone. Be ready in love to say I’m sorry, because you long for deeper relationships, caring hearts and compassionate arms. Saying you are sorry restores a frayed community, a shattered relationship, and a wounded friendship.
Closing Words – from Robert R. Walsh (adapted)
When the great plates slip
and the earth shivers and the flaw is seen
to lie in what you trusted most, look not
to more solidity, to weighty slabs
of concrete poured or strength of cantilevered
beam to save the fractured order. Trust
more the tensile strands of love that bend
and stretch to hold you in the web of life
that’s often torn but always healing. . .
The shifting plates, the restive earth,
your room, your precious life, they all proceed
from love, the ground on which we walk together.