The sorry state of saying ‘I’m sorry’

Culture | Barnabas Piper

The sorry state of saying ‘I’m sorry’

“I said I was sorry!”

Any parent has heard these words used in attempt to avoid consequences for whatever action necessitated the “apology” from their child. Just today my 7-year-old tried to pull this trick after snatching a toy away from her little sister. Her defense tactic was so obvious it almost made me laugh. It also reminded me of so many press conferences I’ve seen in recent days: Politicians caught in compromising situations, baseball players caught cheating, and entertainers seen doing something embarrassing while under the influence. They all have something in common: They respond like second-graders.

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I don’t write this to downplay the significance of a sincere apology—without them, reconciliation and the healing of hurts can never happen. What I’m referring to is the culture of obligatory public apology that fills our TV screens and newsfeeds with insincerity. It’s risky to challenge any apology since it calls motivation into question, but sometimes it’s as clear as a 7-year-old’s self-defense tactics.

Often, the act of apologizing itself is seen as the penance to be paid: All one must do is look suitably downtrodden and make a public statement of remorse. These apologizers see it best to not admit too much wrongdoing and to blame-shift a bit. Once all that is over, the apologizer is off the hook, or that is his impression of the situation. What gives him away is the bristling that takes place when called into question or, more likely, when actual consequences come to bear. His resistance of just dues indicates a heart that isn’t sorry, just self-protective.

I’m often guilty of creating the second type of false apology in my children: the coerced one. “You tell your sister you’re sorry right now,” I tell one daughter. So she does, whether or not she means a word of it. It beats defying me. So it goes with the athlete who spouts off to a reporter and then chokes out an apology to that same reporter the very next day. His coach or general manager had a little talk with him, basically the same one I have with my kids. So he apologizes, whether or not he’s sorry. It beats a suspension or a fine, and it is a decent PR move. 

Judging these public apologies is easy to do, and often such critiques are spot on. But what I find much harder is to be as equally discerning of my own motives. When I apologize to my wife, am I doing it to get in her good graces, thereby avoiding “trouble”? Is my contrition based on self-preservation and risk analysis, or is it a humble admission of wrong? When she, being human, struggles to forgive immediately, do I immediately turn into a child: “I said I was sorry!” Or do I recognize that healing takes both sincerity and time? That is the mark of both true contrition and maturity.   

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