A colleague says unkind things about you behind your back and you hear about it. She comes to you and says, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” How does that feel? Now consider the same scenario but this time she says, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” This feels better, doesn’t it? What a difference a small word can make!
Even before the Amish community’s response to the murders at the Nickel Mines school, the concept of forgiveness had been getting a great deal of attention in academic and popular venues. But what about apology? What makes up an apology, and what is its role? And why is a real apology so hard, and so rare?
The first scenario above is often passed off as an apology in today’s world, but it isn’t, not really. The offender has not fully acknowledged the harm, nor has she taken real responsibility. Her response is too easy and incomplete to be a satisfactory apology.
Nicholas Tauvis, in his book Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, has provided a thorough exploration of apology. He argues that its role is critical in repairing relationships because it has the power to both rehabilitate a wrongdoer and to restore social harmony. Paradoxically, it helps to undo that which cannot be undone.
Religious traditions differ on whether real forgiveness is possible without an apology. All would probably agree, however, that an apology is desirable and helpful in the movement toward forgiveness. Tauvis argues that apology is the middle part of a three-part moral equation that starts with a call for repair or justice and ends with a response – to either forgive or reject the apology. An apology, then, often prepares the way for forgiveness.
A genuine apology has several basic components. First, it requires the apologizer to name the harm that he or she has done. Second, he must express genuine sorrow and regret for his actions and the hurt they have caused. Ideally, he would then also ask for forgiveness and pledge to avoid such behavior in the future.
An apology might include an explanation or account of what happened, but it must go further; as Tauvis puts it, an apology begins where an account ends. That is, to truly apologize is to acknowledge that, regardless of the explanation of what happens, one has no excuse or justification for what he has done.
Obviously apology is not easy. Real apology requires painful remembering and retelling. Apology also involves vulnerability: it requires us to acknowledge that we did something wrong and, in doing so, calls attention not only to what we have done but who we are. Because it is painful and potentially humiliating, says Tauvis, apology is in fact a form of self-punishment.
Apology is especially difficult if we believe our intentions in doing the act were honorable. Yes, I acknowledge that my actions had harmful consequences but I did not foresee them and didn’t intend to hurt you. Most of us do not deliberately do harm; we believe our overall intentions are good and thus apology becomes especially difficult. The acknowledgement of harm directly threatens our self-image as an essentially good person.
Apology may be difficult but the formula is quite simple: an apology requires us to name and take responsibility for the harm, acknowledge that it was wrong, express our regret for our actions and their effects, and seek to prevent such wrongs in the future. In a restorative justice framework, we would take it one step further: we would try to repair the harm to the extent it is possible. Dutch law professor Herman Bianchi has suggested that this is where forgiveness comes in: forgiveness does not eliminate accountability but forgives the difference between what one can do to make things right and what cannot be made right.
Next time someone in the news apologizes…next time someone apologizes to you…next time you apologize to someone, take a careful look. Are they, are you, naming the harm and taking responsibility for it? Are they, are you, expressing genuine regret and committing to avoid such behavior in the future? If not, wounds are unlikely to be healed. If so, an opening is being provided where the miracle of forgiveness and even reconciliation can happen.