One of the most difficult things for humans to do is apologize to someone they hurt or wronged intentionally — and make it mean something.
For example, say you retaliate for a demotion by taking a dump in the drawer of a desk belonging to your boss. Everyone suspects it was you, but there’s no proof as to the perpetrator who committed this grave insult.
Eventually, someone you thought was a friend rats you out. Management calls you into the boss’s office to account for your crime — the consequences of which, if not horrifying, may at least be worrisome.
Getting fired puts you on the street and can even leave your family without health care benefits while you scrounge around for another job.
A muttered “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. That’s not an apology. It’s an escape mechanism designed to get you off the hook and out of the room as quickly and painlessly as possible.
For the record, I never did that to my boss. However, once, when confined to the coat closet, I peed in my fifth-grade teacher’s rain boots, something for which I refused to apologize until the Old Man got home and tuned me up.
I didn’t mind the parental whacking. However, I resented the hell out of a teacher paddling me just because I didn’t do homework.
Note: Mrs. Hansen, wherever you are, it was a fake apology then, and I still don’t mean it now.
OK, back to adulthood. Just because you apologize doesn’t mean the pain you caused is over, nor does it mean your victim has to accept it immediately.
You can’t be shopping at the corner grocery and come face to face with a former close friend whose life you practically destroyed, and say, “Sorry I had sex with your husband,” and then push on looking for the green beans.
A real apology requires an opportunity for the person you wronged to rebut — or at least let you know how badly you hurt him or her. Punishing, I know, but then you miss the possibility that your victim decides right then to forgive you.
One of the most crushing human emotions is shame. We’ll do just about anything to avoid it. We also spend a lot of energy trying to justify our worst behavior.
Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least 2,000 people to whom I owe genuine apologies. By this, I mean those to whom I deliberately said or did something to hurt them.
I don’t count people who get their backs up just because I was distracted and didn’t wave back at them, or because I said something they didn’t agree with, or because they get some kind of validation from being a victim. I especially don’t count the people I arrested as a cop.
My latest apology was to a girl I tormented in the ninth grade. I found her on Facebook and remembered what I had done, which was basically tease her until she cried.
I sent her an apology that I was such a creep back then. I hoped that time had allowed her to cool off and she would be receptive to a sincere apology. She wasn’t.
“Who are you?” she responded. “I don’t remember anything you’re saying.”
I confess that I was relieved at not even being a blip on her radar, but I feel even better about having struck that crime off my list. You see, I was still paying for it even if she wasn’t.
Give it a try. Might be a good way to start the new year. Start small if you need to. No point in scaring yourself off of something that needs to be done.