Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Power of an Apology

"Flowers in the Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

I sat in our local Starbucks yesterday listening to a fairly vociferous, overheated conversation between a married couple sitting in the chairs next to me. They were arguing about “overspending their household budget.” At one point in the exchange the man threw up his arms and told his wife “I’m sorry I make you feel that way” - that statement did nothing but add fuel to the fire, heating up the argument a notch or two.

As I listened to the escalating exchange of words, I was immediately reminded of something I had just read in a recent New York Times article, titled: “The Right Way to say I’m Sorry.” In the article, psychologist Harriet Lerner, observed that human beings are “wired for defensiveness” and so we may often find it difficult to offer a genuine apology to another;  instead we often offer a pseudo-apology aimed at protecting the individual ego.

When someone tells another “I’m sorry I made you feel that way” it’s hardly an apology. What they are really saying is “I’m sorry you are so sensitive that you were offended by something that probably shouldn’t have offended you.”  Furthermore, anytime the word “but” is tagged onto an apology, it is no longer an apology: “I’m sorry I hurt you BUT you do lots of stuff to hurt me also” – once again this is hardly an apology, rather it is a defensive, ego-protecting statement.

In her New York Times article, Dr. Lerner wisely suggests the benefits of making ourselves “vulnerable enough” to really offer a “no-strings attached” apology to someone we have offended or harmed:

An apology is central to physical, emotional and spiritual health.
‘I’m sorry’ are the two most healing words in the English language.
The courage to apologize wisely and well is not just a gift to the injured person,
who can the feel released from bitterness and corrosive anger.
It’s also a gift to one’s own health
bestowing self-respect, integrity and maturity -
an ability to take a clear-eyed look at how our behavior affects others
and to assume responsibility for acting at another person’s expense.

A genuine apology has the power to repair harm, mend relationships,
soothe wounds and heal broken hearts.

Interestingly enough, the spiritual wisdom of all the major world religions ultimately points to fostering and healing relationships by breaking down the walls individuals put up to defend a fragile or bloated ego.  It seems to me that, when we are vulnerable enough to genuinely say “I’m sorry,” it is a profoundly spiritual act.

I’ve been thinking about that heated exchange between that couple at Starbucks yesterday.  I wonder how much differently it would have turned out if a real and not a pseudo-apology might have been offered?

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