Many years ago I read a very brief story in a magazine by a writer who had inadvertently observed a small drama on a city street. It was a scene between a boyfriend and girlfriend, perhaps seniors in high school. The boy was a deaf-mute. I don't remember exactly what happened, but in the dimness of memory, I see them lounging about on a hot day, maybe on a bench, maybe just outside school, and then a disturbing event took place that related to the boy's disability. Either he hadn't heard something and became confused, or perhaps some other youths insulted him. In any case, his girlfriend, exasperated and embarrassed before her peers, lost patience, dismissed him, called him an idiot—like, "Why do I waste my time with you?" His face fell. He looked crushed. The girl was immediately horrified by what she had done. She took him in her arms and kissed him tenderly, over and over, on his ears, on his mouth, as if to say, again and again, "I'm sorry, I love you, I love all of you, including the ears that can't hear, the mouth that can't speak."
Apology (and, when necessary, the redress of grievances) is an act of giving that can be as powerful and transforming as forgiveness. Certainly we crave it as much. We want a release from our own worst feelings about ourselves; we want to feel cared about and connected again.
A couple It was seeing in marital therapy were miserably estranged after Bill refused to accompany Thérèse to a screening her gynecologist had ordered to rule out ovarian cancer. They came into treatment with that weighing on them. "I told her I was sorry," Bill said, sounding like a bad boy who couldn't get anywhere with his stubborn mother. Thérèse started getting worked up.
I interrupted. "Well, Bill, why didn't you go with her?" Bill gave the official line about the nightmare week he was having. I said, "If your daughter Julie said, 'Daddy, I'm scared. They think I might have cancer; they want me to come in for a cancer test,' would you have found a way?" He said yes without hesitation.
"So what's this about?"
"She didn't make it sound important." "If she had said she was scared and really needed you there, do you think your response would have been different?"
He shrugged; he wasn't sure.
"Do you think maybe you wanted to hurt Thérèse?" Bill looked confused.
Thérèse recalled a fight a few days earlier that they hadn't resolved. Bill angrily corrected Thérèse's interpretation. They went at it for a while. Then Bill fell silent. We established what his silence meant: that he felt hurt by her style of confrontation and was simmering. I said, "So you were wanting to get back at her?"
"Yeah. There was no way to get through to her." Bill looked at Thérèse and nodded. "Yeah, I did want to hurt you." He turned to me. "I wanted to hurt her." He looked at her again warmly. They stared at each other. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he said. "That was mean. I'm sorry. I really wasn't thinking at all about what you were going through."
Thérèse broke into sobs and Bill embraced her. She pounded him on the shoulder, even as she folded into him, crying, "Why do you have to be so mean! Why do you have to be such an insensitive f****!" while he held her and repeated gently, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I thought to myself that for all his limitations, he can reach her like no one else.
Later on, when we turned to the take-no-prisoners quality of her aggression, as well as the distant, uninviting way she'd asked him to come with her to the clinic (I don't really need you, but you can come if you like), she was able to see that her offhand manner was partly a setup in which Bill would be given a new opportunity to be bad. I was certain she would not have been so receptive to this view if she had not first felt validated by Bill's apology.
We often feel, and say, that certain things are unforgivable. We doubt that we can ever get over a wrong that someone has done us. And yet a well-done apology, with a full opening of the heart—This is where I was, this is why I was there, I know I hurt you, and I feel terrible about it—melts that feeling, overwhelming and amazing the logic of our resentment.
Like forgiveness, apology can take many forms. It can be perfunctory; it can be partial but still real; it can be full-hearted and transforming, bringing about a reconnection and rekindling of love. But like forgiveness, apology born of guilty fear, a compulsive wish to please, or compliance is not worth much.