Tuesday, October 9, 2012

See, what had happened was...

UPDATE: Want to include the work of Takeshi Moro in this post. Referenced in this post, but check out his website.

Over the weekend, there was this installation of Post-Its on 1104 South Wabash. I really wish I'd taken a picture of it now: a kind of multi-colored wave of paper-movement on the giant windows of the 1st floor, these little squares, some blank, some written on, flapping in a chilly autumn breeze. The instructions were to write on two and take one. The Post-It I took has a lovely sentence about meeting someone who is able to "hold the space" when the writer was vulnerable--a skill we all need more of in ourselves and our communities, but which is precious hard to find these days. The Post-Its I left are hard to remember: the first was a line about how every day I grow a little more into blah blah blah; the second was an apology.

Yeah, I've used this photo before. The installation was across the street.

I was working with some young people at Gallery 37 a few years ago and we went to WBEZ and at the end of the tour, a bunch of them volunteered their voices for an apology. Anonymous, hopefully (but not always) sincere. It struck me as really compelling, a kind of sound scape of saying you're sorry. I never heard the results. But ever since then, I've been thinking about the kinds of apology we offer: when, why, how, and for what and so what? Since then, I've wanted to write a post here that was all apology. I've been thinking about it for, well, years I guess. All those nameless expressions of remorse, stacked up like a monument of regret and a desire for reconciliation. The danger is making an apology that isn't really apology. You know, like, "I'm sorry you're an asshole," or , "I'm sorry you couldn't have been a more thoughtful and compassionate human being." These aren't apologies; they're insults cloaked in conciliatory language.

So this idea of drafting apologies got me thinking about two things:
  • the first is the etymology of the word apology. Obviously it's Greek, yes? But a quick visit to the Online Etymology Dictionary reveals that apologia is "a speech in one's defense", from apologos-, "a story, an account." There's a bit more context, but I wanted to save you looking it up. So what's interesting is that the old root is "an explanation, a speech in defense." It's not my fault I don't have my paper, the dog ate my homework, my hand slipped, the devil made me do it. Apology as we commonly know it--but seldom use it--to express regret for one's actions, didn't come into play until the 18th century. A speech in one's defense seldom makes the pained feel better. It might supply more information, but it rarely mitigates pain, I think.
  • It also makes me think of Jesus. "Be reconciled"; I used to be in a community where this kind of language was standard. Jesus gave lots of models for confrontation. There's lots of language about turning cheeks and forgiving seventy times seven; about going to someone alone, then with your brother, then before the whole community; about taking the 2x4 out of your own eye before you check your brother (gendered language, anyone?) for a splinter. But when he was confronted, his confronters just became the bad guys of the narrative; when someone calls you Pharisaical it isn't a compliment. Maybe this is a comment on the biased and (dare I say it?) unreliable narrator(s) of the New Testament. I think I only mean that I can't remember seeing Jesus ask for forgiveness. I mean, for his crucifiers, yes, but for himself? He seems above above the explanation/contrition/remorse part of relationships. Whenever anyone spoke to him about his behavior, he'd respond in parables that seemed utterly off topic, or he was content to squat in the dirt and draw pictures with his fingers: like a total hippie--which is lovely. I wonder if Jesus lived now he might be a vegan or drive a Prius; but the hippie conflict avoidance isn't a great model of how to apologize. (As an aside, was it Jesus' destiny to be crucified? Did he "let them" (so that he could say, "Father, forgive them") or did he have any choice in the matter? I know, that's the garden scene with the prayer and the sweat like blood running down his skin, so of course it was his destiny. I just wonder, even in that apology on the cross, is that contrition or compassion? Both are good, don't get me wrong; but I'm not sure even there that Jesus was apologizing: asking for forgiveness, yes, but apologizing? It may have been humanity's greatest sacrifice, but is there any apology even in this?)
Christians like to hold up Jesus as a model for living, a model for relationship, but did Jesus ever have to go to someone and say, "Man, I am so sorry, I totally messed that up. I have a deep and full understanding of how I hurt you, and I regret it. How can I begin to make this right?" He told us we have to forgive each other--is that because forgiving is harder than apologizing? I don't think so. I think people have a really hard time holding the fact that their actions, words, behavior, have caused another person harm. We want to dash off apologies that don't hold the other person's pain, and then we require, even demand, that they forgive us. We feel and show guilt as a means of distancing ourselves from the pain, rather than just feeling the pain with our member of community, and we self-flagellate in order to demonstrate remorse, but do we really feel it? Or do we just embody it so that the burden of feeling pain is off us, and on the other? What would an apology from Jesus look like? He lived a humble enough life, sure. But would it be useful to see him be a total jerk? Would it enhance his humanity, and our ability to connect to him? Would it give us the chance to see how to really apologize to someone, so that we had a better model of apology, and not just of forgiveness?

I didn't learn to apologize well. I know of a lot of people who suck at it. Maybe it's because a sincere apology, the ability to lay bare before someone else--to give them the chance to take shots at you because you both know that they are hurting because of something you did, regardless of your consciousness or your intentions--is just too eff-ing scary for us, so we won't do it. Maybe it's because being regretful will require us to consider our flaws, and we don't want to believe we are flawed. I like to pretend I'm flawed in ways that make me cute and charming, but not in ways that make me deaf to others or pushy, insensitive and demanding. When someone comes to me and says, hey, you did this, and it hurt me, it is WORK for me not to defend myself against that or to rush to an explanation, but instead to take in that person's pain and sit with them and with them in it. This ability, to sit with someone in the midst of something uncomfortable, even painful, is a skill that so few of us have, or know how to practice. We want to MOVE ON and LET IT GO, and all of that can happen and should; but it comes after the acknowledgment, after the ability for us to bear witness, to say, "Yes. I see the thing that you see. I see how it affects you, personally, relationally, professionally, artistically. I see my role in it." I think this is the hardest part. The apology is one more way that we try to hide from who we really are, even as we are being required to be the smallest, lowest, truest and most sincere of ourselves, in relationship with others.

Anyway, enough meditation, onto the real work:

I'm sorry I didn't tell you the truth more often.
I'm sorry I told you you looked like a cake in your wedding dress.
I'm sorry I made you cry.
I'm sorry I was rude to you.
I'm sorry I didn't speak up when I should have.
I'm sorry I took you so seriously.
I'm sorry that I let you believe that about me.
I'm sorry I'm not in better touch.
I'm sorry every time our conversations are too much about me.
I'm sorry I said your mom was a bitch.
I'm sorry I put my foot in my mouth.
I'm sorry I accidentally touched your boob.
I'm sorry I told you to shut up.
I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry.
I'm sorry I wasn't more direct with you.
I'm sorry I was so bossy.
I'm sorry I wasn't more sensitive, and easier for you to talk to.
I'm sorry I expected more than you could give.
I'm sorry I had those thoughts about you.
I'm sorry I was so angry.
I'm sorry I said no.
I'm sorry I said yes.
I'm sorry I wasn't listening.
I'm sorry I didn't act faster.
I'm sorry I can't always give you the thing you want from me.
I'm sorry I didn't tell you to stop.
I'm sorry I didn't set a better boundary with you.
I'm sorry I never told you how much that hurt me.
There are explanations I could make, accounts I could share, of what I was thinking, of what motivated my behavior, consciously or otherwise. But at the end of the day one (or both of us) got hurt, and I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


--Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for pulling me into the conversation =) I think you make some very compelling points about why we need to apologize, and why it is so hard for us to do it. Like you, I did not learn to apologize well, and it's been a life-long process to un-learn and re-learn what that should look like (being married is really good for that... as well as being in a leadership position lol)

I thought your point on the original etymology was also interesting:

// apologia is "a speech in one's defense" //

If I could add my own little theological slant, I think this is one of the primary reasons we all suck at apologizing (maybe even why we suck at being friends). I think most of us have a core posture of thinking about ourselves over others, and that our default response in all arenas of life is to make "a speech in one's defense." The desire/need to prove ourselves worthy and right is so fierce that it undermines our ability to genuinely enter into another's space (as you so eloquently pointed out).

So my two cents is that without acknowledging and dealing with that dynamic we remain handicapped in our ability to genuinely apologize

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Your apologies are accepted.

Jessica Young said...

Thanks for weighing in on this, Daniel. You're a great thinker, and I appreciate hearing what's happening in your head.

And thank you, Regina. The stakes are pretty low, apologizing anonymously and to people I may never track down and connect with, but even the act doing so has some significance, I think.

CC said...

Of course I saw your post within minutes of reading this: http://tinybuddha.com/blog/learn-to-forgive-yourself-even-when-youve-hurt-someone-else/