Apologies, Forgiving and Forgiveness

For some reason, I just ran across a September, 2004, article by Martha Beck titled “Always Apologize, Always Explain,” in Oprah Magazine.

It’s still a good read.  Part of what makes it powerful is a list of what is contained in a good apology (itself from Aaron Lazare, the man who—literally—wrote the book on Apology)

1. Full acknowledgement of the offense
2. An explanation
3. Genuine expresssion of remorse
4. Reparations for damage

It’s a fine list (and has prompted me to finally buy Lazare’s book). 

But what I want to focus on is Beck’s own additional thought:

The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive—or refuse to forgive—on his own terms. That is his right.

Quite right.

It’s instructive that the ninth step of the Twelve Step program literature (you know, the one that pops up in Seinfeld and other sitcoms—the one about making amends), also doesn’t allude to forgiveness. In fact, none of the 12 steps do.

I think this is because Beck, and the 12-Step program, recognize that life is a messy business. To forgive, one has to have a very clean heart in the first place.  And we—I’ll be clean here and just say I—rarely do.

If I’m in a rush to forgive people, I most likely am still judging them for some harm they did to me.  If I’m consternated about being forgiven, well, that’s all about me; and apologies don’t come from a good place if they’re all about me.

Apologies should not be tainted by forgiving, or by seeking forgiveness.  Those have their place, but it’s elsewhere. 

A good apology tries to set aright something that you set awry by impinging on another’s will.  It’s only appropriate that the apology itself refrain from further imposition of will. Hence the separation from forgiving or forgiveness.

Apologizing is fundamentally about taking full responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  Fully owning your words, your actions, your life helps everything fall into place.  Blame is gone.  Wishing is gone.  Whining and tweaking and sliming and spinning are all gone when you take responsibility for your own role—no more, no less—in what goes on.  As Phil McGee says, blame is captivity, and responsibility is freedom.

In that vein, I want to apologize to (he knows who he is) for what happened back in (he knows when it was).  It was my doing—he knows that, and I want to say to him he was right.   And I’m sorry.

10 replies
  1. John Kador
    John Kador says:

    Martha Beck’s formula for apology is off in one respect.  She suggests the ofender offer an explanation as part of the apology.   Does a victim ever want an explanation beyond, "I was thoughtless" or "You were right and I was wrong"?  I don’t think so, even if defensiveness can be stripped out of the explanation.  What victims want is what I call the 4 Rs: recognition, reponsibility, remorse,  and restitution. 

  2. Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker
    Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker says:

    This is a really great article.  I agree with John Kador that most people don’t want a lengthy explanation.  For me, that is because, in the past, the person doing the apologizing tried rationalizing what he did with excuses.  Excuses is still not accepting responsibility for the wrong.  Thanks for this article.

  3. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Simple Justice, one of my favourite legal blogs, has a post about Federal Judge nominee Michael E. O’Neill’s odd mea culpa.

    It seems to not only fail all four steps listed above, but what makes it particularly interesting is that O’Neill seems to take the increasingly common attitude (at least in the realm of US politics) of: I admit I did something wrong, so now the rest of you need to get over it and we’ll all pretend it never happened and move forward as if admitting wrongdoing is enough to make a clean slate.

    1. O’Neill’s non-apology strikes me as an abysmal trust-building strategy.  (Which it obviously is not meant to be, but still.)
    2. It strikes me as a short-sighted political and PR strategy, that relies on a great deal of collusion and protection from the media and authority figures in a position to make public comment.
    3. I hope that the increasing number of these "sweep it under the rug" non-apologies in the political world doesn’t set a new social standard and lower the public’s expectations of what their own apologies should be like.

    I thought you might find it interesting, and I wondered if you are coming across this white-washing/rug-sweeping tendancy as much in the business world as well.


  4. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    I like Kador’s build too.

    And Shaula–I’m aghast with you at O’Neill’s non-apology.  Not clear to me if he really meant it as an apology, but like you said–still!  Clumsy, doltish.  Offensive.  Bad.  Hamhanded.  Annoying.  All those things.  An apology?  Not.

  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, I’m revisiting one of my favourite older posts to share an article with you.

    I recently discovered "A Don’s Life," the Times Online blog of Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge, which includes her post Please don’t apologize.

    Beard is targeting institutional, not individual, apologies—but I thought you might find the view from the other side of the puddle interesting.

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Shaula, what search terms are you using to come up with these off the beaten path articles?  Fascinating.

    What a good article!  Completely wrong, in my humble opinion, but quite good because it’s provocative. 

    It’s worth a click-through, people.  Ms. Beard argues that governments ap0logizing for past injustices are not only being ineffectual, but sanctimonious.  Two commenters do a thorough job of disagreeing with her.

    Thanks Shaula!


  7. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Don’t know if you’ve caught this story, Charlie, but Greg Gutfield of Fox News may have just set a new record in the category of Epic Non-Apology

    Canada’s Defence Minister Peter MacKay is more easily satisfied than I am–especially given that Defence took the step of spelling out what would constitute an acceptible apology. 

    (And for the record, Gutfield is indeed sorely misinformed about the contribution of Canada’s military.)


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