You can hear people saying sorry at funny times. I thoughtlessly knocked into someone in the supermarket the other day and she apologised to me even though it wasn’t her fault! Actually, I have noticed that British people do tend to say sorry over the least thing. It seems to be an unthinking response in the presence of strangers. Perhaps we do it as a way of trying to be polite to cover up any embarrassment. Yet, is it not the case that we can hesitate before saying ‘sorry’, in more important matters, for fear of getting all the blame, or of being punished?
Need to hear people saying sorry
I have found that when you really have let someone down like forgetting to do a job or keep a social arrangement, the other person does need an apology and also receive some indication of why. Without these two things, it really is more difficult for them to let go and move on without harbouring resentment. One example is the resentment of a house seller after the purchaser pulls out of the deal at the last moment without giving any meaningful reason — this despite the vendor having invested much time, money, and emotion in the preparations for house change.
No one is perfect and in our personal lives inevitably we make a few thoughtless mistakes from time to time and sometimes are even careless of other people’s needs. Pouring oil on to troubled waters is so important. How often do you hear about so-and-so not talking to someone because of something he or she had done or failed to do. And of course the longer this failure of communication goes on the more difficult it is to heal the rift. Sadly a family feud can last for years.
Fear of punishment if saying sorry
Sometimes all it needed was an apology. But has there ever been a time when you failed to say ‘sorry’? Perhaps it was because you had no excuse to offer and was uneasy about the other guy getting cross with you.
Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit.
(Edward R. Murrow)
There are of course a few people you might happen to offend who love to play the blame game. Once you recognise this person as someone who takes delight in putting others down then you might be a bit cautious in how you apologise even when you are at least partly in the wrong. This overcritical person can need careful handling. There is a technique taught by assertion skills coaches called ‘fogging’. The idea is to disarm the verbal bully by not defensively justifying one’s mistakes — not getting into a fight that the bully knows all too well how to win.
Taunt: “This is some real sloppy work! You’ve really gone downhill since we’ve employed you!”
Response: “I am sorry that this is not my best work. I guess there were some problems that can be fixed next time.”
Taunt: “What you did was no good at all.”
Response: “I imagine some people might say that. We will have to wait for the customer feedback to be sure.”
Taunt: “You were either careless or lazy.”
Response: “I guess I will be able to be more careful with more realistic time constraints on the next job.”
Fogging, in essence, is giving an apology without appearing to be defensive about it whilst at the same time not necessarily accepting all the blame. In other words agreeing with a small portion of what the bully says that happens to be true, without agreeing with the general point he or she is making, and without agreeing with all the implications.
You may be the sort of person who just finds it very hard to be saying ‘sorry’ to anyone including to those who are ready to forgive. It can be difficult to acknowledge when you are in the wrong because of anxiety associated with fragile self-confidence: or perhaps when you just can’t bear to feel the guilt: or are too proud to admit you are in the wrong. Self-protection can be more important than the truth and can work at an unconscious level. And so this ego-defensiveness is much more noticeable in others than in yourself.
The result for people like this is that they are not really in touch with themselves. They don’t really know themselves and are unaware why they really are doing things.
But even if you do know in general terms about your weaknesses and failings, it is quite another thing to acknowledge where and when you are in the wrong, and yet another to deeply regret what you have done.
According to Emanuel Swedenborg genuine apology is when you both acknowledge what you have done wrong and resolve to change what you do so the error is not repeated. Saying sorry is otherwise meaningless.
I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.
Swedenborg is concerned with the right religious attitude. A few people who you have offended against may be taken in by an insincere apology but he points out you cannot fool the divine spirit of truth who many call God and who sees all things.
He criticises those Christians who believed that a general confession of sin is sufficient for their personal salvation. Instead, he maintains it is a waste of time for the religious believer to confess their sins to God unless their apology is heartfelt and leads to an attempt at personal change. Only in this way can they hope to gradually receive new spiritual life.
So, if he is right and if you want your personal life to be spiritually transformed, I would suggest you really do need to listen to your inner conscience, humbly acknowledge where you are specifically going wrong, say sorry in your heart to your image of God, and sincerely resolve to try to change your ways.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems