A couple of months ago, I made a mistake. Or, more correctly, I was part of a group that made a mistake. I will not go into details, but it involved naïve good intentions and not enough due diligence, and it was something that was important to me, something I believed I had some skill in. Injury was done to people and ideals as a result. (I should add that “injury” was nothing life-threatening or physical; but people were nonetheless hurt). This being 2018 (which it was at the time), social media exploded with all kinds of conspiracy theories and statements like “they should be ashamed of themselves!” Pitchforks were being fetched, torches lit, and I could almost smell the tar being prepared.
I was hurt, too, at first. We didn’t intend it that way! We tried our best! You’re overreacting! All of those statements went through my head as the rhetoric ramped up. That’s the natural reaction—defend yourself! Protect yourself! Double down!
Instead, I stepped right in front of the charging bulls…and apologized. I urged the group to do so, too, officially—and within a few hours, I had helped put together an official statement to that effect, a direct and open apology, free of weasel words and excuses. Why? After looking at the issues, I realized that we had made mistakes. We’d been travelling down that road to Hell—the one paved with good intentions—all along. We’d naively assumed good will where there still were festering, open sores. It had made us blind.
And you know what? Nothing felt so good as honest contrition and confession. The bulls stopped charging when they realized the flags were white, not red. The furor was diffused, and within a few days, largely forgotten. I want to believe that’s because the apology was genuine and happened quickly. We did what was required to minimize the pain.
There is nothing so empowering as admitting publicly that you were wrong. I’m not talking about the reactions of others here, or whether an apology is “good enough” if you do not take action or learn from your mistakes. I am talking about how it impacts you personally– about the pure, simple act of letting go of your pride and defensiveness, looking at a situation, and understanding what you did wrong—and then owning it. If you really own it (rather than use the apology in a manipulative manner, to get others to feel sorry for you), you will want to do better next time. If you really own it, you will not coat that apology with caveats. What will be most important to you is doing everything you can to lessen the impact on those which the actions have hurt. And finally, what you also need to know is that this is not about wallowing in self-pity. Saying those words of apology to the right people gets you past the biggest hurdle and gives you a chance to move forward.
Does this hurt? You bet it does! That’s the humanity speaking.
This is why I have not always followed my own advice. Real humility is humbling. I have occasionally indulged in the manipulative apology, designed to gain sympathy. I have sometimes been so wrapped up in my side of the story and my own pride that I couldn’t see beyond that perspective. I’ve sought to make excuses, find a scapegoat—anything to escape the feeling that I have betrayed my much-vaunted integrity. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes beat myself up over small issues, magnified them out of proportion. But what I’m realizing is that none of these reactions get me anywhere. They don’t make me feel better; quite the contrary. They sure as hell don’t make anyone else feel any better.
I keep returning to the idea of virtues as cures for vices. In this case, the virtue of hope is the cure for the vice of wrath. To paraphrase, wrath is the inability to see beyond the wrongs of today, with the resulting emotions—frustration, anger. Hope is focused on the future (the theologians who wrote about this were thinking in terms of eternal salvation, but I think the more modest interpretation applies as well). Owning my mistakes, whether large or small—naming them, learning from them—is what gives hope.
I have indulged in this little piece of self-examination because apologies are much in the news these days. There are a lot of people who see them as a sign of weakness–but it takes strength and courage to make a true apology. And apologies made by public figures sometimes ring false (particularly those involving weasel words). Some of them are just words. But when I look at myself, these examples do not deter me. Apologies are cathartic. They steel the soul for what must come next–the hard work of doing better the next time, of making amends (where amends are possible), and the realization that apologies are not always accepted. I do think, however, that taking responsibility for smaller mistakes makes it less likely that I will make larger ones. Knowing that I am fallible helps me avoid the hubris that leads to true disaster.