A Flipswitch Moment: Blame and Control

Usually life is a continuum. But occasionally you run across one of those flipswitch moments. The trick is—are you open to them?

A friend of mine, some time ago, told me this:

My dad was an alcoholic and a smoker. We loved him and resented him at the same time, because he would be there for us one moment, and then the next moment, not at all.

Eventually he got lung cancer, and we figured that was it. I ended pretty much staying away from him during his illness; I was just too resentful. And then he had surgery, and made a completely unexpected recovery. He quit drinking and smoking, and we were delighted. Though still suspicious.

He picked smoking back up soon enough, and then the drinking. And after a few years, the illness was back, and I knew he wouldn’t beat it twice. He told me once, “You know, I’m not an alcoholic, I really could stop whenever I wanted.” I hated him for that lie. 

As the end came, I got more and more bitter about his irresponsible actions toward all of us, and his refusal to take any blame. He never apologized. I went with my siblings to see him in the hospital, but I hated it.

A nurse pulled me aside. She said, “He only has a few days left. He doesn’t have the emotional or mental energy to change at this point. If you’re waiting for your father to apologize to you for all that he’s done to you in life—now is the time to give that up. It’s never going to happen. Now the only one who can change is you.”

I shivered, because I knew she was right. The next day, I was able to forgive him. He did the best he could; it wasn’t very good, but it was his best. I told him I loved him, and I did. I was able to give up the rest. And I’ll always be grateful to that nurse for giving my future back to me.

My friend was open to the flipswitch moment.

Are you?

The Fallacy of Good Intentions

Have you ever messed up? Messed up badly enough that you feel awful about it, can’t wait to apologize, to try and make it better? And to have others forgive you?

And have you included in your apology/explanation words like, “I really didn’t mean for it to come out that way, it’s really ironic because I didn’t mean for that to happen, I never meant any harm, my intentions were good, I didn’t mean to do anything wrong, I’m really sorry if I hurt anyone because I didn’t intend to, I feel bad because I never meant to, I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt because I didn’t mean to, etc.”

Let me guess: that part didn’t work out so well, did it? And it still feels so unfair, doesn’t it? After all—my intentions were good; why can’t they see I meant well and stop saying and thinking all those bad things about me?

Here’s why. Intentions matter greatly in assessing initial trust. We judge whether another’s words and deeds are aimed at their own self-aggrandizement, or whether they’re intended to help us. A sense that another’s intentions are good can overcome things like credentials and price.

But if things go wrong, intentions do not get you a pass. In fact, they can make it worse. Because when we trust someone and it bombs, we assume only bad things.

Perhaps we conclude you lied about your intentions—which means you took advantage of us. Or we decide it means you turned out to be incompetent—which means you didn’t even know your own weaknesses. Which means your good intentions were either lies or irresponsibly misleading.

Worst of all, however, is continuing to protest that your intentions were good. Because if they’re lies or worthless, and you keep insisting on them, it means you are incapable of learning, and of focusing outside yourself. Why else would you keep talking about it?

When you’ve messed up, let yourself feel the pain, or disgust, or regret, or whatever you feel. Then own up to it to yourself. Your intentions no longer matter. They turned out to be irrelevant. The other person now has plenty of reasons to mistrust you. Don’t make it worse by forcing your failed intentions in the other’s face. They. Do. Not. Care.

After a while, say something like:

Look, I really messed up on this. I realize I did X, and Y, and maybe even Z, and put you at risk for Q. I’m not even fully sure why I did this, but I know I did it, and I’m working on figuring out why. I want to make it better, if you’ll let me. This was my responsibility and my error. And I apologize to you for it; I am sorry I did it.

Period. Let it be. Resist the temptation to sneak a little bit of “I-didn’t-mean-it” in there. If asked “how could you do that, were you trying to do that?” you can simply say, “No, I did not mean to do that,” and leave it at that. Only if someone persists on wanting to know your mental state should you go past it. And even then, don’t let it be an excuse, just an explanation, and keep your answers real short.

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And how often have you really intended to do something messed up anyway?

Let it go. Take ownership. Own it. Grow up.

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.