A Talk on Apology
This was a talk I gave in my ward in November 2013. I hope you all enjoy it.
Earlier this month, President Uchtdorf gave a talk that the Church is featuring on their website for Thanksgiving. It’s titled, “Reconciliation and Thanksgiving.” He speaks about service, reconciliation, and gratitude. I’ll speak on reconciliation, or specifically, apologies.
I remember having many lessons on repentance in Primary, Sunday School, and Young Women’s when I was growing up and there was something about 5 R’s for the steps of repentance, but just between you all and me, having 5 of the same letter as a pneumonic device isn’t that great of an idea. I remember the word “repent” is one of the 5, but I can’t remember the others (unless they are all repent repent repent repent repent) and I’m not sure what “apologize” would fall under.
When you go to find out what Jesus said on apologizing, you get surprisingly little. There’s lots on forgiveness and turning the other cheek and loving your enemies, but not much on saying that you’re sorry, just two lines in the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” (Matt 5:23)
I wonder if the lack of discussion of apology is because saying that you’re sorry is actually harder than forgiving. Saying that you’re sorry takes a level of humility and admittance of guilt that I wonder if the gospel writers themselves didn’t really want to touch on it. There also weren’t a lot of conference talks on it either, but I’m going to go ahead and do this talk anyway. This is a difficult topic and let me demonstrate why.
First imagine yourself with someone else: no one in particular, just a generic person. Close your eyes and imagine yourself telling them, “I forgive you.” Doesn’t that feel nice? It feels so nice and almost freeing to even forgive imaginary people in your head! Now imagine yourself with your generic person and tell them, “I’m sorry. I messed up.” That’s… harder, even with a generic person. It feels heavy. In the two situations: forgiveness versus apology, in which one do you feel “powerful”? It’s the forgiveness one. Which one felt maybe weak, vulnerable? It was the “sorry” situation. It’s hard to feel like that. We all like to think of ourselves as “the good person.” It’s hard to be the “bad guy” and to admit it.
But we’re all going to be bad guys. It’s inevitable. We’re all going to mess up and offend someone. And it’s natural to want to brush it off and blame the other person and think “Well, the scriptures say charity is not easily offended and look at them being offended about something. They are the ones without charity. They are the ones in the wrong here.” But that’s the natural woman or man speaking. We can’t go around blaming others for being offended while we run around in our lives like bulls in a china shop hurting everyone.
So in this talk I’m not going to address the instances when someone is offended over what we think are little things because I don’t think that happens as much as we want to assume. This is going to be about when we are wrong. But before I continue, I want to put in a word about guilt and shame. I think they are both natural things to feel, though different in productivity. I define guilt as recognizing, “I did something wrong or bad” and shame as “I am a wrong or bad person.” The first statement is useful for learning to navigate life and relationships. The second is false and useless.
I want to go back to that power demonstration because I want to turn it on its head. Think about a time when a person or an organization or corporation messed up really badly in a very public way. Maybe they released a really offensive commercial that laughed up harmful stereotypes or used words that were racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, or otherwise just wrong. What happened? Let me tell you. People saw it or read about it and they sent in complaints. Angry emails and phone calls. People were un-”liking” the person or business on Facebook and Twitter went up in flames over it! And what was the response? There are a few kinds of responses. If it was a single person, maybe they deleted the offensive tweet and wanted to just pretend they never said anything. They erased it and acted like it never happened. Or maybe they waved it off and said, “It was just a joke. You are all just too sensitive. It wasn’t meant like that.” And doesn’t that just rankle your feathers? Or they (sometimes) stop and say, “Wow. We really messed up and see that wasn’t ok. We’re going to change that right away and make sure it doesn’t happen again” and maybe they even add, “How can we make it up to you?” Which reaction is going to make you admire that person or company? Which one is going to make you follow their actions more closely and give them your business, alliance, support? It’s the apology one. While apology can feel disempowering to the one giving the apology, it has amazing power to forge stronger relationships.
So how do we do apologize? I don’t think there is enough instruction in this- as kids we get, “Go tell your brother you’re sorry,” and they get a half-apology that is given with a glare and mumbling. We can all recognize an insincere apology. Maybe you had parents or teachers or friends that modeled good apologies. That’s wonderful! But some people don’t get that modeled for them. I think parents or other authority figures assume that apologizing makes them appear weak and that their children or other people below them will suddenly think, “They just said they were wrong in that! What else are they wrong in? Everything? Let’s overthrow their authority now!” There’s a fear of “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” But how does it really go down?
The one time I remember my father apologizing to me was when I was 7. I was going into second grade and was upset that I would not have Mrs. Humphries, my first grade teacher again. I cried about it a lot. And to my dad, he saw a 7 year old throwing a ridiculous fit and that I should get over it. It’s not like crying was going to magically make me a first grader again. My dad yelled at me and sent me to my room for an early bedtime. The next morning when I came down to breakfast, my dad had a change of heart. He told me he was sorry and was making me Mickey Mouse shaped pancakes for breakfast to show it. No, I didn’t have Mrs. Humphries again and yes, I was upset over a little thing. Perhaps in his mind I was “choosing to be offended”, but I still remember that apology. It was really important to me that he cared about my feelings.
What do apologies need? First, they need humility. They need the offender to stop and consider the position of someone completely different. They need truth. As the “bad guy” really messing up, you need to trust the other party when they say, “Hey, that hurt me. That was not ok.” You have to trust that they know their life experiences better than you do. And that seems obvious, but so often we think we know more about someone’s circumstances than they do. My dad thought he knew “better” and that I’d just get over it and I shouldn’t be complaining and crying about something so little. I imagine his apology came about from thinking about what it might feel like to be a first grader moving up to a new grade and not knowing what the teacher would be like and how scary that is. He had to trust that my tears were coming from a real place and not there to manipulate or annoy him.
As the apologizer, your humility needs to let go of fear. It’s scary to apologize and hard to admit that you messed up. Especially when the ways you messed up get labels like “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic” or “ableist”. Those are strong labels. And no, I don’t like to think I’m racist or sexist or ableist, etc. But do I sometimes say things that are? Yeah, I do. And that’s not ok. But apologizing means admitting to some really bad, embarrassing wrongs, and knowing that you can say, “Yeah, I really messed up there,” and keep trying harder.
Second, apologies need to go to the person. Not to God. This was a bad strategy I’ve employed in the past. I’d skip the apology to the person offended and just go straight to praying for forgiveness from God. It doesn’t really work like that. You can ask God for forgiveness, but that doesn’t fix the lived situation you are in. It might make you feel better like you checked that one off the list, but you know God’s going to keep loving you and accepting you. It’s hard to go to a person who might not be so forgiving. But I’d say that if you can, do it. I’m going to read a story from the 1875 Women’s Exponent, which was the Relief Society publication at the time. It doesn’t list an author here, but the editor at the time was Emmeline B. Wells, so I’ll attribute it to her.
“Never be ashamed to apologize when you have done wrong in domestic affairs,” says an eminent divine. “Let that be a law of your household. The best thing I ever heard of my grandfather, whom I never saw was this: that once having unrighteously rebuked one of his children, he himself– having lost his patience, and perhaps been misinformed of the child’s doings— found out his mistake, and in the evening of the same day gathered all his family together and said, “Now I have one explanation to make and one thing to say. Thomas, this morning I rebuked you in the presence of the whole family, and now I ask your forgiveness in their presence.” It must have taken some courage to do that. It was right, was it not? Never be ashamed to apologize for inaccuracy.”
In this story the grandfather made sure that those who were present to the wrongdoing were there for the apology so that they also knew that he was in the wrong and didn’t continue thinking that the boy Thomas was.
Thirdly, apologies also need to happen at the right time. I think it can sometimes feel like you messed up so long ago that going back and apologizing is too hard or not important 5, 10, 20 years later. But it can be appreciated. When I was 21, I got an email from a classmate who apparently had made fun of me in junior high. I had forgotten that he had said anything mean, though I do remember his friends being mean to me. I wrote him back and told him things were good between us.. Can an apology happen too soon? Yes, I think so. I’ve done that with an old boyfriend where I apologized without letting him have some time to himself.
Apologies also need to be specific. Focus on what you did. “I’m sorry that you felt like I…” or “I’m sorry you think…” or even worse, “I’m sorry for you…” are not apologies. That goes back to trusting someone when they say they are hurt. “I’m sorry I said something bad.” “I’m sorry I did this specific thing.” The phrase, “I’m sorry you felt…” is invalidating and can feel like you are making fun of the other person’s feelings. Other phases that invalidate are “You were overreacting. It was a joke.” A good addition would be to straight up say, “I was wrong” and, “How would you like me to fix this?”
Apologies also need to be given with no expectations of receiving forgiveness. Some years ago I made some comments that offended one of my sister-in-laws. She was very upset about it and her husband told my husband about it. I immediately dug in my heels. “It wasn’t meant to be taken that way!” I thought. I even asked other people who were there when I said it, if they thought I had gone too far. They all agreed with me that my remarks did not warrant her offense. But there was bad air between us and I knew I should apologize. Before we moved away, I went to their house and asked to talk with them. Sitting in their living room, I apologized for my words and then waited. I was thinking that my apology would be welcome and I’d hear something like, “Thanks, it’s ok, really.” I wanted to be assured that I was a “good” person. But instead heard a sarcastic, “Well, it’s about time,” which just reinforced that I was late in this apology and not that great person of a person in this matter at all. I thanked them for their time and went home. There will be times when you apologize and it will not feel like a weight has been lifted.
But what if the offended person is dead? Or what if all of your “bull in a China shop” actions made a person feel like they needed to remove you from their life? That’s happened to me, with people in my family. Maybe time will heal the wounds and I’ll get a chance later, or maybe that’s when we really need to invoke the atonement and trust God.
I did find one other scripture about apology and it is James 5:16, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” I hope that this year will be a joyous time with your friends and families and that you don’t mess up too much, but if you do, it’s ok. We can heal wounds and rebuild bridges and we can apologize.