The Rebuked Apology

Interpersonal warfare has many dimensions. In the giant storeroom of weapons and strategies, next to the M16’s and poison arrows, is the rebuked apology.

This is the scalpel of conflict, the slitting of the aorta, the permanent solution. There is no coming back from the brink of a rebuked apology; it is just an avalanche of large rocks from then on out.

So has this happened to you? Apologized to someone and have them refuse your apology? It could go like this.

“Hey, I’m actually starting to miss you as a friend. Do you want to call a truce and kind of pick up where we left off?”

“No.  You’re too crazy/too moody/too critical/too aggressive/too much/too/too/too.”

Or have you sat on your tuffet daintily nibbling, deigning just for a moment to listen to the supplicant’s pitch, maybe even considering an apology like a small ring on a large pillow, before heaving it  against the wall, where, because it is cheap and not well-thought out, it explodes into thousands of small shiny pieces.

It can be flabbergasting to the apologizer that, after so much thinking and planning and screwing up of one’s courage to actually apologize, the target of the apology would be so dismissive and cruel to wave off the apology. Especially after the apologizer agonized for days or weeks about the wisdom of making an apology, maybe not even believing that there was anything to apologize for but only wanting a resumption of the relationship the way it was before whatever it was happened.

No. When this happens, it is the very essence of the word chagrinned as in ‘feeling distressed or humiliated.’ “He was chagrinned when his friend pour scorn on him.” Yes, indeed. Chagrinned. A rebuked apology will do that to you.

The best apology I ever received came from my own father after ten years of estrangement in which he wrote the words “I am so sorry” on the inside of a greeting card. I was so amazed to see the words, it never occurred to me to rebuke his apology although he really had little to apologize for and I was more responsible for our estrangement than he was. Despite all that, it would have been easy for me to stick with my anger, to not let those few words crawl up in my life and change everything.

I wonder sometimes about apology in a larger context. Like it seems to me that the United States should formally apologize for having supported slavery for 250 years. It seems like a minimal thing to do although I think the apology should be accompanied by reparations which would make it more than a minimal thing. Without apology, slavery becomes just part of the evolution of the country rather than an enormous, terrible, scarring wrong visited on everyone past and present. If the U.S. Congress passed legislation to apologize for slavery, what would be my reaction if I was an African American person, a descendant of slaves?Would I accept the apology or rebuke it?

An apology doesn’t change what happened. That’s what an apology rebuker doesn’t understand. Because the apology doesn’t erase history, the rebuker says no to it, thinking , ‘Accepting your apology does nothing to change what happened and how I feel about it; it’s only meant to make you feel better, to let yourself off the hook.’

Maybe we would be better off if, when we are faced with needing to apologize, we think about the interaction in different terms. I’m thinking it would make more sense to say ‘I regret this’ than ‘I am sorry’ because the former just describes the reality of the situation and the latter does something else, I’m not sure what, but it’s so often unsatisfying, like the sayer means to change history but knows it’s impossible. It comes off as not being enough.

The next time I need to apologize for something important, that’s what I’m going to say. ‘I really regret this.’ Not sorry, regret. I mourn this terrible mistake I made and the damage that resulted. I think that’s what my father was saying in the card he sent. He sent his regret.

It  didn’t change the past but it changed the future.


#35/100: 35th in a series of 100 in 100


4 Comments on “The Rebuked Apology

  1. My family and I were talking the other day about the deep-seated need for those of us who have harmed another to seek some way back. You are right, the words “I’m sorry,” have lost meaning or can evoke unintended ones. Perhaps we’ve over used it. I know so many (women mainly) who say I’m sorry when the enter a damn room, using it to somehow pave the way for themselves or create goodwill in case it is needed.

    We do need the chance to say out loud to those we’ve harmed, “I regret this. I want to reconcile.” I love this post.

  2. Great post Jan!

    I think part of the issue is that sometimes people use “I’m Sorry” as commonly at thank you, with very little regard to what they are actually apologising for or how their actions may have hurt someone. An easy way to just move on, so to speak.

    So many of us find confrontation difficult & are ill equipped to have a conversation with one another without laying blame. I found myself in a situation, with a person very dear to me, a few years ago. I won’t bother you with the details as, at the end of the day, they are irrelevant. What does matter, is that I had hurt them deeply.

    I had 2 choices. I could be offended & stick to my perspective, or I could confront them & have a very difficult conversation. I did not share their view on how things rolled out. I too, felt very wronged & it would have been easy to dig in my heels.

    Regardless of my perspective, this person mattered to me too much to let this come between us. After a few attempts, we eventually we sat down & discussed the situation. Agreeing to disagree on some issues, we had a very honest conversation & really heard the realities of how we had made each other feel. To really listen to another person’s perspective. without getting our feathers ruffled, is a difficult task! To get past the blame & who did/said what without making things worse, can seem unachievable. To be honest, it was one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had. Having said that, we were able to forgive & move forward.

    You are so right Jan, we can’t change the events of the past. We can only work towards the future. I think that taking responsibility for our actions & our words is what allows us to accept an apology. In order for that to happen, it must be genuine, for otherwise, they are just empty words.

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