It didn’t take the Supreme Court for this one, the verdict was pretty clear: Eli (3) hit Asher (6) in the head. Witnesses included the six or seven of us who were in my parents’ living room watching my nephews at play. Then Eli got excited, the excitement turned to anger, and BAM a hardish toy fell from his tiny paws and collided with his big brother’s temple. Despite the hard evidence, his sobbing brother, and a clear motive—I mean this was his big brother after all—Eli backed into the corner of the room thinking it somehow would provide some sort of invisibility. Both he and the crime were clearly visible, and his tired parents chided him and demanded he check on his whimpering, mostly faking brother.
Finally the fateful words were uttered: “I’m sorry.”
He may have been sorry to have been caught, but that was as far as his remorse went. He didn’t mean it, and neither do most of us. Truly the word “sorry” seldom has the meaning it is supposed to carry. We say sorry for all sorts of things—it is almost as bad as the empty way we “love nachos” or “love these new jeans!” I’m sorry, but we don’t love these things. And also I’m not really sorry at all.
I was at a meeting with a male leader at a company who, upon hearing about how another male leader was raising his young daughters, asked, “You are teaching them not to apologize every time they have something to say, right?”
He went on to explain that many of the women he leads—bright, ambitious young women—apologize when they offer feedback or criticism or brilliant ideas. What are they apologizing for? Well, the only clear cut answer is they are apologizing for who they are (and what they are: women) and that just isn’t right no matter how culturally conditioned it is.
And this is not merely the territory of culturally suppressed young women; it is also the domain of men. I just interrupted a meeting because the information I had deemed it worthwhile. What I had to say was pressing and needed the action of those in the room. Upon leaving, I said, “I’m sorry for interrupting your meeting.” I wasn’t sorry. I made the choice, and it was the right choice—all would agree.
Here is the issue with all this. We apologize all the time for all the wrong things. We use sorry instead of “excuse me,” or “pardon,” or “I have a really great idea,” and then comes the moment when we truly have something to be sorry about—our Eli moment—and we don’t have the sentiment. Sure, we may say the words, “I’m sorry,” we may even try to wear our most contrite face, but the feeling isn’t there. One of Eli’s favorite current phrases is, “I pooped!” Yep, he was a late bloomer in the potty-training department so now each properly placed defecation is announced and celebrated like a game-winning touchdown. Before this new disturbing phrase became his dictum of choice, Eli’s most common phrase was a jokey, mocking, sing-song: “SOR-RY!” He’d laughingly say this when he’d find you in hide-and-seek, when he’d jump in a pool and splash you, when he’d pull any sort of trick on you.
In this way, I’m far too often like Eli. I’ll say sorry in a plethora of ways, but I’m not that sorry at all. My pride won’t let me be; my heart won’t feel it. I am numb to remorse, and thereby freezing out the possibility for true reconciliation with those I wrong.
It doesn’t take a Supreme Court for this one: I need to rediscover the word “sorry,” both when I’m caught out and when I’m not.