Like most kids of my generation, I was brought up to believe in and practice the art of giving a sincere apology. I remember my mom telling me, “Don’t say it unless you mean it” and teachers in the playground prying kids apart and exhorting them to apologize and shake hands. It was a simpler time, and we weren’t as self-involved then as we are now in the thrall of social media. An apology given then was taken at face value, and two kids who had just been rolling in the dirt, punching and kicking each other, were relieved to be forgiven by their adversary and resume more innocent activities. Later, as a troubled teen, my mom’s forgiveness was almost sacramental for me. Whenever I was in trouble and forced to confess and apologize, she would forgive me and afterwards send me to the shower where I’d wash all the guilt and shame down the drain and emerge feeling cleansed of sin – until the next time.
As A Parent
I resolved upon becoming a husband and a father to be open about my mistakes and to apologize whenever I’d made one – so I’ve had a lot of practice. I learned that my mom had been right: an apology mustn’t be just a way of soothing social friction. Instead it should be sincere and from the heart. And there shouldn’t be qualifications attached or explanations. A sincere “I’m sorry I did that and that I hurt you / let you down / broke your heart, etc.” goes a long way if the listener feels your sincerity. It is a balm that leads to healing and repairing a relationship. I learned never to let my pride get in the way of knowing when I’d made a mistake and more importantly, how to avoid making mistakes before they happened so that an apology would be unnecessary. It was my son who brought this home to me. I realized quite early never to promise him anything that I couldn’t actually deliver. Having started a new job at a demanding school when he was 4, there were times when my work prevented me from carrying out the promises I’d made for our precious evenings and weekends together. The look of disappointment on his face after I’d told him that I couldn’t take him to the cinema or on a promised picnic was enough to break my heart. I became more circumspect after that and only made promises that I was absolutely certain I could carry out. This improved things considerably until he was going through his troublesome teen years and I was being pressured by his mom to “discipline” him. Now, I’d never known my own dad, who died the year I was born. And my poor overworked mom had no issues with carrying out physical discipline when one of her five children stepped out of line. In the words of Phillip Larkin in his famed poem, This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
I bear her no ill will as she was doing the best she could with the hand that had been dealt to her. She always apologized afterward and assured me that it hurt her more than it hurt me. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself and had employed similar techniques of “discipline” on my own son, that I understood the final part of the equation: a sorry means nothing if you don’t change the behavior that necessitated an apology in the first place. After one particularly nasty brawl that left my son shaking and in tears of indignation on his bed, I returned to his room to apologize. He told me flat out that he would never submit to my attempts at physical intimidation any longer and that if I was sincere about my apology and wishing his forgiveness, I should never lay a hand on him again. Out of the mouths of babes. So I never did. There were times I wanted to, oh yeah. But I held myself back.
Lessons Learned From My Mom and My Son
- Always apologize sincerely
- Never make promises you can’t keep.
- Quit behaving in ways that require you to make an apology.
- Violence never solves anything.
Finally, I’d like to end this post with the words from a meme that a friend forwarded to me, celebrating the 10-day-period between the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’m not Jewish nor even religious but they resonate with me deeply:
To those I have wronged,
I ask forgiveness.
To those I have helped,
I wish I did more.
To those I’ve neglected,
I ask for understanding.
To those who have helped me,
I sincerely thank you.