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Stop Apologizing and Feeling Guilty For These 4 Things

From our earliest experiences, parents, teachers, and religious leaders teach us to apologize. They claim it is integral to the proper functioning of society.

So, it might make you uncomfortable to think that you should stop apologizing. However, there are things you do not have to apologize for.

Many people operate under the idea that “Transgression demands atonement.” If you violate the law, or simply engage in a personal offense, make it right. This means taking ownership of the act and contrition.

For many, an apology is like a crisis response institution that is well-known. However, it is not known well. It is like the American Red Cross. We have a vague sense of their purpose: be the balm with which to mend a broken heart, or the succor of a warm blanket and a hot cup of coffee. 

However, many people don’t know how the American Red Cross actually works! They are also unfamiliar with the specifics regarding apologies!  Our understanding of the form and function of contrition is limited.

When should you really say sorry? What makes an apology sincere?

What saying “I’m Sorry” is not

Let’s review the basics of an apology. Simply saying “I’m sorry” is not some magical response. These two words alone do not mean the speaker is entitled to forgiveness. The process is more complicated.

The offending party must give the person they wronged a meaningful opportunity to make an informed decision. This means they have the choice between accepting or rejecting the apology. Therefore, there must be complete disclosure of the facts and circumstances.

People need to communicate. Simply telling your spouse/domestic partner/significant other “I’m sorry” is rarely sufficient. A qualified apology is similarly ineffective.

Speaking the classic – and offensive – “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” is like throwing accelerant on a five-alarm emotional blaze. The subtext suggests a less nuanced, though perhaps more honest, sentiment: “It’s too bad you’re so thin-skinned as to take offense.” Secondary victimization is not an observed best practice.

What Constitutes a Genuine Apology

The word derives from the Greek apologia (“a speech in one’s own defense”). This presumes that the speaker has engaged in conduct for which defense is required.

The Wall Street Journal published “The Sincerity Scale,” a graphic depiction that ranks apologies from most to least effective. Scholars Jennifer Gerarda Brown and Jennifer K. Robbennolt observe that a genuine apology consists of two things. The separate, yet complementary, empowering principles of reconciliation and forgiveness are the key.

The former allows the wronged individual to restore some semblance of the relationship. This happens even if they can not forget the event in their hearts. While the latter affords a victim the opportunity to open their heart in demonstration of unconditional love. One of the heaviest burdens to carry is a grudge.

An example serves to illustrate this point. Someone who has been cheated on might reply to an apology with, “What you’ve done to me has broken the trust I had in you. You did something wrong, but we will move forward together. I will never be able to forgive you.”

Alternatively, s/he could declare, “The pain you’ve inflicted on me is less than the grief you will shoulder. I forgive and wish you well. But we’re done.”

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The sweet spot on the Venn diagram of apology is the zone where the circles of reconciliation and forgiveness overlap. In such an instance, the relationship continues. There is a chance to grow stronger through what can be a painful process of healing.

Apologies are often overused

One can say “I’m sorry” for any number of reasons. First, it might be used to express solidarity. Another reason could be to convey their feelings of true friendship when offering condolences.

An apology can also be an automatic response to a minor inconvenience. For example, “The barista gave you a Tall, Non-Fat Latte with Caramel Drizzle instead of a Triple, Venti, Caramel Macchiato? Wow. I’m sorry.

Now, we can distinguish between the death of a loved one and the first-world inconvenience of a caffeinated service failure. The misuse, or mere overuse, of apology eviscerates its power in proper context. With alarming regularity, some bow to misplaced social convention. Thereby blurring what were once clear boundaries.

Stop apologizing unless the situation calls for it

I chose to invest my collegiate study in the exploration of Philosophy. For me, it was not merely a means to satisfy a graduation requirement. It was rather, the conscious decision to embrace a life of the mind.

Under the tutelage of several Jesuit intellectual giants, I learned many things. Including that it takes a conscious act of courage to speak truth to power.

In the intervening quarter-century, I have contemplated ethical issues. These include the related duties of truth-telling and apology. I concluded that there are behaviors and occurrences for which we ought not to be repentant.

I am pleased to raise for collective consideration four actions for which one should never apologize.

Speaking The Truth No Matter How “Inconvenient”

Rugged individualists run the real risk of being ostracized within their communities. An unlikely trio of Western European figures underscores the point.

Galileo Galilei, the paradigm-shattering 17th Century Italian physicist/astronomer, had the audacity to publicly share his belief in a helio (sun)-centric universe. He defied both secular convention and religious authority by maintaining that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Not the other way around.

In reaction, the Catholic Church proclaimed him a heretic. They placed the visionary under lifetime house arrest. In an apocryphal statement attributed to Galileo following his recantation, he defiantly declared, “E pur, simuove” (“Even so, it does move.”) In 1992, St. Pope John Paul II acknowledged the correctness of Galileo’s finding.

Three hundred years later, Eric Arthur Blair, better known to the world as British essayist George Orwell, wrote:

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Not “Your Truth,” The Truth

Contemporary society is plagued by an aversion to apply formative descriptors. In particular, members of Generation X and their Millennial successors are downright apologetic in this regard. Conversations no longer include declarative statements.

Today, what passes for dialogue is often the mere exchange of mealy-mouthed, up-ticked interrogatories and “vocal fry” that betray less-than-confident speakers.

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Consensus seems to hold that expressing an opinion with less-than-forced hyperbole is an incivility to avoid at any cost. Such timidity is unwarranted.

Popular discourse today also includes the disturbing call to “live in/speak your truth.” To be clear, there is but one truth. Not your truth, nor my truth. Instead, there is only THE truth. That fact may prove to be uncomfortable to some. However, one should never apologize for this objective, existential reality.

Doing otherwise is an act of intellectual dishonesty. It places both the speaker and her audience on the moral slippery slope. Take a stand for ‘The Truth.’

The Open Practice of Your Faith (Even When Yours are Not the Tenets Du Jour)

Never apologize for proudly professing your faith.

Each of the great faith traditions venerate martyrs (from the Greek, “to witness”), those who are willing to lay down their lives in the ultimate sacrifice for transcendent beliefs.

It is neither easy nor politically expedient for individuals to openly demonstrate their faith.  Making the Sign of the Cross, donning a yarmulke, or wearing a burka requires self-confidence. The adherent understands that such unmistakable public professions speak to insider/outsider status.

In December 1791, the Founding Fathers ratified the Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments to the majestic United States Constitution are the backbone of our society. The liberties they enshrined some 230 years ago continue to ensure the viability of our republic and its democratic ideals.

The First Amendment secures four freedoms, the first of which is Freedom of Religion. America was founded by those who sought a homeland in which they could worship in accordance with their conscience. Those values remain expressly manifest in our Pledge of Allegiance, national songbook, and currency.

Whether you self-identify as a theist, deist, atheist, agnostic, or a devotee of any other belief-based system, enter the public square with your head held high. Since 1776, Americans have shed blood, sweat and tears to provide us with this extraordinary birthright.

Your Core Values (Regardless of What Color Political Pundits Assign to Your State)

Be proud of who you are and never apologize for it.

Historians will remember the Presidential Election of 2016 as one of the most divisive periods in the first half of the 21st Century. From the Tea Party to Pantsuit Nation, Americans polarized behind two major party candidates. Neither of which enjoyed true broad-based support.

In the frenzy to ‘Make America Great Again’ or to steadfastly proclaim ‘I’m With Her’, media outlets and political pundits declared that our nation is conveniently divided into Red and Blue States. This reductionist oversimplification fails to acknowledge that those in Pensacola see the world as differently from residents of Miami. Just like, Albany homesteaders disagree with Manhattan denizens.

Buttons and bumper stickers communicate sound bites, not nuanced understanding. The emerging descriptor Purple America offers some solace to those who reject absolutist labels.

Returning to the First Amendment, we find the freedoms of Speech and Peaceable Assembly.   Americans have the right to speak or write about their ideals. Even to do so with like-minded people. In some corners of the world, the exercise of those “basic” freedoms is punishable by death.

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Whether you are a Republican in New York City, a Democrat in Tupelo, MS, or an Independent who ‘Felt the Bern’ in the Midwest, be cognizant of the fact that you continue to enjoy the freedom to articulate those passions. You can contribute to the marketplace of ideas. That is the essence of the peaceful transition of power.

The Tenacious Defense of the Defenseless (A Compassionate Society is Measured By How It Cares for Its Most Vulnerable Members)

American social activists including Emma Lazarus and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have opined that until we are all free, none of us are free. In the 21st Century, many of our brothers and sisters are still bound. Those shackles consist of unemployment, poverty, drug/alcohol dependence, mental illness, and homelessness.

As people of goodwill, we are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Conceptually, most would agree these are social goods. Most will agree that we should strive toward them. In application, progressive reform is all-too-often met with resistance embodied in the acronym NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”).

  • Open a charter school. (But don’t use my tax dollars to provide a facility for your students.)
  • Start a work readiness program. (Don’t bring your graduates to my Human Resources Department looking to join our workforce.)
  • Fund a halfway house. (Just don’t put in near my home.)

Ask yourself “If not you, who? If not now, when?” This question captures the modern zeitgeist.

In a steadily polarizing nation of haves and have-nots, we must not shirk our individual and collective responsibility. We must care for those who cannot do for themselves.

Think you or your family won’t end up in similarly dire straits? Think again

A 2015 study found that 56.3 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 in their combined checking and savings accounts. For many, living – existing – paycheck to paycheck is a way of life. In 2016, The Atlantic magazine reported a Federal Reserve study that found that 47 percent of respondents would have to sell something or borrow money to cover an unexpected $400 expense.

Many of us at some point in our lives need a dignified hand-up, not a stigmatizing hand-out.

Be an agent for positive change and break the cycle of socio-economic failure. Never apologize for trying to save lives.

Conclusion

When you do wrong, make amends. See something broken? Fix it. If you encounter someone whose life you can improve, do so.

There are many breaches of the social contract for which to apologize. Being faithful to the values that shape you and the freedoms which protect you are NOT on that list. Never apologize for living life as you should.

And for those blessings, I make no mea culpa.

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