There is the little “sorry” that might be “excuse me” or “oops” and the “sorry” for forgetting or being late and the “sorry” for misunderstanding and the “sorry” for “I didn’t mean that at all” and the “sorry” that ought to be “please forgive me.” But moving among them all is a deep apology that rolls elliptically through life, moving back whenever I move forward, undoing nearly everything it does.
“Love,” a sappy movie once said, “means never having to say you’re sorry,” and yet the people I most want to apologize to are those I love most. I suppose I could count on their forgiveness, but I want them to think all my imperfections aberrations and all my intentions pure.
The last time I had a physical fight I was nineteen. My younger brother and I were arguing over something I can’t remember, and I took a swing at him. My fist never landed—it lost impetus just after launch—and my brother just shoved me out of the way. But my mother witnessed this ugly incident and ran from the room and slammed her door. My brother disappears from my memory at that point—I must have apologized—but I vividly recall walking down the hall to talk to my mom. I called through the door, “I’m sorry.”
She answered, “You’re always sorry, but sometimes ‘sorry’ doesn’t fix things. You shouldn’t do all these things you have to apologize for. You ought to know better.”
I’m sure I said I was sorry for that too.
My trouble is thinking apologies noble. Admitting fault sometimes feels good, like pressing a reset button. You right a wrong and, suddenly, you reboot. Trends are favorable again. Perhaps it’s not really your turn to say you’re sorry and someone else should apologize, but the word clears the air. You communicate, “I am the sort of person who acknowledges my mistakes. I learn.”
You may also communicate, “I consider myself the better person.”
Plato’s Apology, a record of Socrates’ trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, focuses on Socrates’ admission that he’s never thought himself wise, except in acknowledging that he doesn’t know squat. In other words Plato’s work is misnamed. It isn’t really apology at all, just boastful self-deprecation or disregard raised to stature of brilliance.
And sometimes nobility battles with resentment. My worst apologies appease or placate. Though, in my heart of hearts, I might feel wronged, I say “I’m sorry” in the interest of peace, but it’s tough to find pleasure in submission. Every pack needs beta wolves, but who wants to be one? Flattening your ears and cringing is so unbecoming.
“It is a good rule in life,” P. G. Wodehouse said, “never to apologize. The right people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”
Yet I wonder how other people avoid “I’m sorry.” It is a hard habit to break. Every day something goes wrong that I must take credit for, and, if nothing else—I’m sorry to say—there’s always apologizing for apologizing.