A few posts ago, I wrote about how, when I was six, I filched a 50¢ piece from my girlfriend, Laura Nieminen. This quaint story was a parable about sin, investigating what sin did to me. How I burned with both adrenalin and shame, with satisfaction and sorrow. How I hoarded my heist and hid my wrong, regretting (and ruminating about it) all the while. How, in the end, doing wrong didn’t do much to Laura (I doubt she ever knew she was robbed), but made me, the thief, burdened, self-conscious, and split from my true self, uneasy, dis-eased.
Ultimately, the whole episode cost me more than I’m sure it cost Laura. I mean, look: I’m now at midlife, and–– can you believe it?––I’m here on a blog writing about those same rusty copper pennies.
And over 40 years later, you see it’s still there, that stupid coin, lodged in my memory like a token jammed in the slot of a vending machine. It never bought me what I thought I wanted. Instead, it cost me, and it still does.
So. What’s a girl to do? What can you do about 45 years of dis-ease?
Luckily, criminal minds (like mine) work swiftly. I hopped on a plan. And onto my keyboard:
“Hello, Melissa! Oh my oh my oh my … How did you come to find me on Facebook? I’m glad that you posted your memories of Bloomington, Indiana…”
“Laura, CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? Do you even remember me? I’ve got to tell you that there’s a story behind all this, and those pictures from Bloomington that I posted on FB were meant for you, hoping that, when you got my FB friend request, you’d maybe remember me, or at least try to figure out who this random person is, by hopping to my FB page, and would then make the connection.”
And that’s how, after 45+ years, I ended up reconnecting with Laura Nieminen, the girl-now-woman I’d wronged. I then shared with her my post, and wrote out the check: 45 years’ interest on 50¢. The burden off my conscience weighed exponentially more than 50¢, and I was also really glad to have reconnected with a childhood friend.
Would that all wrongs were as measly as a fistful of pennies.
Would that all the offended were as gracious and good-humored as Laura.
And would that all wrongs were as easily righted.
Well, that’s as far from being true as childhood is from adulthood, as Bloomington, Indiana is from Bad Homburg, Germany. I’ve assembled in my life, as I’ll guess is the case for you, a whole hidden collection of stuff pilfered or appropriated: my sister’s earrings; my roommate’s paperback Milton; a well-honed thought from a great thinker; an evocative turn of phrase––oh, c’mon, just three words!!?––from a fellow writer. I have yet to apologize for them all.
Then there have been the countless ways in which I have knowingly or unknowingly caused others harm, thereby robbing them of their sense of safety with me, trust, security, or as psychiatrist Aaron Lazare writes, their self-concept.
Whether we’ve ignored, belittled, betrayed, or publicly humiliated someone, the common denominator of any personal offense is that we’ve diminished or injured a person’s self-concept. The self-concept is our story about ourselves. It’s our thoughts and feelings about who we are, how we would like to be, and how we would like to be perceived by others.
Lazare, in his excellent article, notes that apologizing––throwing down our arms and exhaling a big, long “mea culpa”––while seen by some as a sign of weakness, is really the epitome of strength. That strength is personal, interpersonal –– as in our relationships with family and friends –– as well as intercultural and international ––as in political tensions like those from South Africa’s apartheid struggle, to which Lazare points:
Take a look at what will certainly go down in history as one of the world’s greatest apologies, F.W. de Klerk’s apology to all South Africans for his party’s imposition of apartheid.
On April 29, 1993, during a press conference, de Klerk acknowledged that apartheid led to forced removals of people from their homes, restrictions on their freedom and jobs, and attacks on their dignity.
He explained that the former leaders of the party were not vicious people and, at the time, it seemed that the policy of separate nations was better than the colonial policies. “It was not our intention to deprive people of their rights and to cause misery, but eventually apartheid led to just that. Insofar as that occurred, we deeply regret it.”
“Deep regret,” de Klerk continued, “goes further than just saying you are sorry. Deep regret says that if I could turn the clock back, and if I could do anything about it, I would have liked to have avoided it.”
In going on to describe a new National Party logo, he said: “It is a statement that we have broken with that which was wrong in the past and are not afraid to say we are deeply sorry that our past policies were wrong.” He promised that the National Party had scrapped apartheid and opened its doors to all South Africans.
Lazare’s reference to de Klerk piqued my interest, because I remember vividly when we lived in Oslo and both de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were awarded the Peace Prize there. Both men appeared on the balcony of the Grand Hotel in the Oslo’s old city center, yet the crowds below on the street shouted down de Klerk. Under a shower of boo’s, the South African leader turned, inching back into the darkness of his hotel room. Mandela stood there, smiling, as the crowds erupted in a stomping, blasting chant: “Man-del-a! Man-del-a!”
(Apparently, some evils are neither easily nor quickly erased from public –– or private –– memory.)
Mandela’s acceptance speech was gracious, a template we all can follow in our quest to forgive and to be forgiven:
Far from the rough and tumble of the politics of our own country, I would like to take this opportunity to join the Norwegian Nobel Committee and pay tribute to my joint laureate, Mr. F.W. de Klerk.
He had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid….
Another voice risen from the evils of apartheid (and another voice awarded the Nobel), is that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His resonant No Future Without Forgiveness lays forth the necessity of apologizing, be that on micro or macro levels. “Without forgiveness,” writes Tutu, “there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations” (italics mine). He urges individuals (and countries) to make the magnanimous decision to admit a mistake and ask for forgiveness:
“Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
As 2015 gets underway, I am challenging myself and my readers to seriously consider the above words of de Klerk, Mandela, and Tutu, and to absorb this hard but vital caveat from Lazare:
The most common cause of failure in an apology–or an apology altogether avoided–is the offender’s pride. It’s a fear of shame. To apologize, you have to acknowledge that you made a mistake. You have to admit that you failed to live up to values like sensitivity, thoughtfulness, faithfulness, fairness, and honesty. This is an admission that our own self-concept, our story about ourself, is flawed. To honestly admit what you did and show regret may stir a profound experience of shame, a public exposure of weakness. Such an admission is especially difficult to bear when there was some degree of intention behind the wrongdoing.
Egocentricity also factors into failed or avoided apologies. The egocentric is unable to appreciate the suffering of another person; his regret is that he is no longer liked by the person he offended, not that he inflicted harm. That sort of apology takes the form of “I am sorry that you are upset with me” rather than “I am sorry I hurt you.” This offender simply says he is bereft–not guilty, ashamed, or empathic.
Whether we have robbed someone’s fistful of cents or sense of self, it is never too late to discover or demonstrate real strength and say that we are sorry. Apologizing requires honesty, generosity, commitment and courage, demands and deepens our humanity, expands our morality, and costs us absolutely nothing. Not even 50¢.