The universe drops a surprise into my e-mail inbox. It’s a letter of apology. It takes three days for me to respond, because it takes me that long to get over being surprised. I’m truly speechless. I had long since given up. Long since relinquished any hope or expectations for this relationship.
I must say, it would have been easier, certainly, not to get this apology. Because sincere apologies, noble and courageous, are a double-edged sword. An authentic apology is not the work of only one person; rather, it makes demands on the person to whom it is offered, too.
Apologies invite all parties to reopen their hearts to pain. To return to the scene of betrayals and injuries. We must loosen our grasp on insulating bitterness. It’s no wonder, then, that other, cheaper options tempt us to dodge the work of reconciliation.
It occurs to me that I could ignore this correspondence. In principle. My silence could be my loud response. No. Go away. Neither you nor your apology shall be granted shrift.
But “principle” is a seductive notion. I suppose that, if some punk shot and killed my son in a sports bar, and if, years later, the punk wrote from prison to apologize to me, I might ignore it. In principle. But, mostly, I’ve learned to be suspicious of myself when I start citing “principle.” Because principle is a convenient disguise for ego.
It occurs to me that I could take this opportunity to scorn my once-antagonist. Even to humiliate her. That happens a lot, for example, in our current political climate. People gather around someone who has erred and urge them to apologize. Then, when the wayward pilgrim does apologize, we gleefully lambast him. Tell him the apology is meaningless. Too little too late. Or we advance our disparaging certainty that the apology is insincere. We tell the person to go to hell. We invite him out onto a limb and delight in sawing it off behind him.
But here empathy stays my hand. No one on earth is more naked and vulnerable than the person who offers a sincere apology. How can I exploit that? I remember too well the times I have hoped against hope for someone’s forgiveness.
The most tempting option, actually, for my cowardly self, is to shrug it off. To say “That’s OK.” Or, “Let’s forget it.” Dismissing apologies is not dissimilar to dismissing compliments. And it’s done for the same reason — to ease our own discomfort. We make light of such things because, that way, we can slime our way out from under the weight of our vulnerability.
This apology deserves so much more than that.
A few weeks ago, I watched an NFL pregame news story about Michael Vick. The story showed Michael standing before an audience of young people, telling his story of moral failure, his nearly two years in prison, and what became of him as a result. His humility was palpable. Prison is what it takes for some people. C.G. Jung would call it the vas hermeticus — the sealed container. The place we go — willingly or unwillingly — where there are no options but to look at oneself. To confront oneself. Only then is redemption possible.
I believe Michael Vick. I admire his efforts to spin gold from the wreckage of his sins. Yes, perhaps I’m a fool. I’ve been “snowed” before by apologies. But, if I have to err, I’d rather end my life saying I was too often a fool for the hope of redemption than to end my life proud of how fiercely I nurtured my indignation. No one’s deepest regret on his death bed is “I forgave too often.”
Whoever said “forgive and forget” is an idiot. The goal is not to forget. Some things cannot and should not be forgotten. When reconciliation is real, the injuries sustained and healed in relationships become perhaps the strongest part of the bond. Scars are made beautiful. Even treasured in some peculiar way.
We don’t aim at forgetting. Yet, when the power of forgiveness is asked for and given, the delightful paradox is that then we often do forget.
I accept my colleague’s apology. Shortly and simply. I hope, graciously. Where there was once silent emptiness there now abides freedom and the exchange of peace.
I’m happy for both of us.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.