Learning to Apologize
From babyhood, my daughter Lulu has steadfastly obeyed the apostle Paul's command, "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephesians 4:26). She must have learned the passage in one of her first Sunday school classes. Somehow, the command's urgency gripped her baby brain with the fear that whoever had angered her—usually me—might die in the night and she'd be left knowing that her last feelings had been angry and the last words reverberating between us into eternity were hurtful or mean.
Consequently, to this day, whenever we have a conflict, Lulu shows up at my side shortly before bedtime with the demand that I apologize so she can sleep.
"You have to say you're sorry," she rages, her 14-year-old face stony and closed, her body as taut and resistant as an angry toddler's.
The conflict is rarely my fault. Lulu has a formidable temper and often, it seems to me, invents offenses. Sometimes I have no idea what's upset her. Other times, it's some minor misunderstanding, infected by adolescent crankiness and swollen out of proportion into yet another felony on my bad parenting record.
Over the years, though, I've come to understand Lulu's demand that I say I'm sorry as her particular brand of apology. A mediocre one, admittedly—although not as bad as some, and certainly not as bad as none at all. She does yield enough to come find me. Or, if not—if she's so mad she stews in her room until my tentative knock on her door—I still know she values my love enough to desire reconciliation. She awaits it and can't sleep without it. This desire amounts to a species of repentance, I remind myself, and everything in me longs to forgive.
Nevertheless I struggle, sometimes, to eke out the demanded apology. To own fault for something I'm certain I didn't do. To claim responsibility for a slight I never intended. To get inside Lulu's hurt or impatience or expectations deeply enough to glimpse myself from her perspective and see my error. To recognize my own impatience or self-centeredness or stress usually lurking beneath the perceived offense. To confess it.
I always manage, though. I search my soul and offer her the best apology I can muster. "I should have known … " I tell her. "I didn't mean to …. I'm sorry. I'll never do it again." More bad parenting, I know. Insufficiently authoritative and just. Certainly far too accommodating to a fuming, wrong-headed teenager hungry for power. But I, too, want to sleep.
So, in the interest of sleep or love—or perhaps even in pursuit of that greater Force who promises both—I forgive Lulu's absurd demand and offer the words she wants. "I shouldn't have. I failed you. I'm sorry." I consider these words, wrung from my righteous heart, a small contribution to our relationship. And, invariably, in the moment of giving them voice, I find myself genuinely, miraculously repentant—and better equipped to love and understand her. Our mutual apologies heal more than just the conflict in question.
Since becoming a Christian a dozen years ago, I've heard many sermons promoting forgiveness, but never one promoting apology. I've always wondered why not. The two topics are certainly related. A good apology—one involving the offender's deep introspection and admission of guilt—frequently has the amazing power to activate forgiveness. And true forgiveness, not merely the forgiver's relinquishment of resentment but the genuine reconciliation of both parties, usually hinges upon an apology. Without it, reconciliation often isn't an option.
Unlike forgiving—especially the extreme mandate that believers go God himself one better and forgive even in the absence of repentance—apologizing is necessarily a two-way enterprise. An apology can't occur without both offender and forgiver present. The worst apologies—such as counter-accusations in disguise or apologies canceled by disclaimers like, "I'm sorry, but … "—still bring the conflicting parties together with the shared goal of reconciliation. Even if I refuse to apologize when Lulu comes to me, she and I are nevertheless in one place, facing each other, openly acknowledging our conflict and our shared desire for release from it. Before words emerge from our mouths, we've both already invested something in reconciliation: Lulu, the coming, and I, the acknowledging. And we both stand to win if the apology succeeds.
Bad apologies, however, come much more readily than good ones. It's easy to say I didn't mean it or that Lulu misunderstood me. Or to simply claim it didn't happen the way she says it did. Such conditional apologies merely slow the forgiving, though, and delay the potential reconciliation. Delay sleep.
Unless I consciously set out to do so—as I've learned to do in my conflicts with Lulu—I almost never manage a guilt admission unsullied by excuses or rationalizations. If I'm at odds with my husband or a coworker or a friend, I struggle to look past my own understanding of the conflict and see myself from the other's side. And even when I scrutinize my actions, I often overlook the most obvious artifacts of my amazing power to hurt and upset others. The acidic tone half-buried in pretended humor. The subliminal meanness. The myriad species of hate generated by my arrogance.
Lulu must also learn how to apologize—to substitute I-statements for the easier you-statements, and consider my perspective as well as her own. And someday I'll teach her. For now, though, I simply model my best apology, which occasionally elicits a tiny apology in return, along with the soothing balm of mutual forgiveness.
And for all Lulu's faults—for all mine—I take comfort that Lulu still hugs me goodnight at bedtime and that her last words to me, should I have the good fortune to die in my sleep, will have been "I love you."
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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Learning to Apologize
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