We are never so optimistic as we are on the first days of a new year. We open a new calendar and become committed to new habits, new routines, and a clean slate. Some people declare that they are going to get around to finishing that huge oil painting of Lake Erie. Others vow to get rid of everything in their house that does not bring them joy.
Then there are those who decide that this is the year they are going to seek out people they have wronged, and finally make amends. This is a nice impulse, but depending on what someone is apologizing for, it can end up doing more harm than good.
Most of us were probably giving apologies long before we understood what they even were. “Say you’re sorry” is one of the first things we are told to do, a few years after survival-related directives like “Don’t eat that!” and “Careful, that’s hot.” Unlike the latter two instructions, however, “Say you’re sorry” is not about your own safety and well-being, it’s about comforting someone else because you’ve done something wrong. It’s probably our first fledgling direction toward empathy.
When you are a kid, apologies function a bit like magic words. A quick and sincere “I’m sorry” helps kids easily move on from hurt feelings and happily go back to playing.
When we are older, though, apologies become a lot more complicated, particularly when they arrive out of the blue. Nearly everyone I know has at some point, received a long unprompted apology message from an ex-husband, ex-friend, or ex-something-else-entirely. They are usually long-winded, and needlessly formal. They tend to arrive after a long lag in communication. And they rarely give any indication that the sender has given any consideration to how it will feel for the recipient to get their message.
A close friend of mine was contacted out of the blue one day by a woman who had terrorized her in grade school. The bully didn’t express remorse so much as string together a lot of sentences about her life both now and in the past, and then mutter “sorry” and wait for forgiveness. “It made me feel like I was supposed to feel bad for her,” my friend told me. “It was stressful because I don’t like lousy things to happen to people, but it was hard to pull sympathy out of the air because she was super vicious to me as a kid.”
Motivation to apologize is frequently about the wrongdoer wanting to feel better, rather than offering comfort to the aggrieved. You could make a days-long playlist of the songs devoted to this phenomenon (hey Adele, “a thousand times” is too many times to call a person). The thing is, an apology puts the burden of action onto the wronged. And an unwelcome apology can be a double injury.
When the NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton was released last year, it came along with a blanket public apology from Dr. Dre about all of the physical and emotional brutality he’d levelled at women over the years, none of which made it into the film. “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt,” he told The New York Times. “I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.”
His comments put his victims back in the spotlight, whether they wanted that or not, and came with the potential to reopen old wounds without really having to make any amends. His ex-girlfriend Michel’le took the brave stance of not accepting it, saying, “I didn’t ask for a public apology, and I think if he is going to apologize, he should do it individually.”
This rejection got several days of news coverage, but Dre himself never responded to it. Perhaps he, like many people, feels like, “I’m sorry” is still expected to function as the magic words did when we were smaller. If the injured party doesn’t offer instant forgiveness, this is often treated like a failure on their part.
Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Spelman highlighted this problem in her book Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, describing the pressure from an apologizer thusly: “Given what I have declared, and declared openly, about my deeds and my attitude toward them, shouldn’t you be pleased? Shouldn’t you give up any anger and resentment you have?”
But how sincere can an apology be, if it cannot be rejected or ignored? How sorry are you, if the only response you will accept is instant and unconditional absolution?
Social media connectedness can increase the pressure to not have any active conflict with someone, because there is no way to keep them out of our peripheral vision. But not every relationship can or should be salvaged.
That’s not to say that no one should ever try to make anything right. I recently got a lovely note from a friend of mine who had cut off contact from me nearly 10 years ago. She gave an open-hearted apology for not handling things better, shared some context for what her life was like at the time, and asked if I’d like to be friends again. Her words felt genuine, vulnerable, and without expectation. I accepted her apology without reservation, and we have been enjoying getting caught up ever since.
But more serious conflicts might be best left in the past. Britni de la Cretaz is a writer who both participates in and writes about 12-step programs for addiction recovery, which require participants make amends to those they have wronged. She acknowledges that sometimes the best way to make things right with someone is to leave them alone. “In some cases the hurt is so deep that the way I can make my behaviour right is by never contacting them again,” she says. “That’s my amends to them.”