All Apologies

To err is human, and to forgive? A divine way to start out the new year.

The man's heavily accented voice hesitated only briefly before he confessed to multiple murders: "I want to apologize. I don't know if even what I did was wrong or right, but when I was in Israel for six months, I killed six Arabs at night with a gang of other Jewish settlers. At the time we thought -- I believed -- we were fighting for our homeland to keep it from the Arabs. But perhaps now that I'm here in America, I realize that maybe killing is not the right way, and I want to apologize."

This message was left anonymously on a phone-message service called the Apology Line, where people recorded their confessions and also listened to others admit to acts of intentional cruelty, silly screw-ups, unfortunate and unintentional mistakes and, on occasion, even murder. From 1980 to 1995, Allan Bridge ran the line as something of a secular priest, offering the potential for forgiveness through the catharsis of taped confession -- until the day he was killed by a Jet-Skier who fled the scene and was never identified.

Allan's wife, Marissa, was convinced that had her husband lived, he would have forgiven the person who hit him. But does that Jet-Skier -- who was seen circling back to confirm that it wasn't driftwood, but a man in scuba gear he had hit -- live the rest of his life plagued by remorse and guilt? And would confessing to someone, anyone, even anonymously, make a difference?

Unless we are sociopaths, we are haunted by what we've done and what we've left undone. If we dare speak about the things we feel ashamed about, and if we are very lucky and the apology is accepted by the one we've offended, we can feel free from the burden of the past. The language of apology -- with its link to the notion of forgiveness -- may have a religious connotation for some, but psychologists and behavioral scientists are now also studying why apology is important and what it accomplishes as they assess what's wrong with people's lives, and how grudges and unresolved stress often affect physical wellness and a sense of well-being. Obsessing over what we've done without taking any action to resolve it puts the body and mind on a treadmill of worry and guilt that can make us crazy or ill -- or both.

I'm sorry seems deceptively easy to say, but the fear of actually speaking those words can tie us in knots for a good long time. The awkward apologies between intimate partners who regularly hurt each other's feelings, or apologies from one group of people to another that come decades or even millennia past their well-overdue dates, can be the hardest things in the world to offer. In the recent past, Pope John Paul II has officially asked for forgiveness for the Roman Catholic Church for its nasty behavior in the Crusades; for its treatment of women, blacks, Jews, Muslims and Martin Luther; and even for its mistreatment of dear old Galileo.

In the case of apology, it's apparently better to receive one late than to never receive one at all.

And how does a nation as a whole apologize for that terribly clumsy bombing of non-military targets, or those centuries of brutal racial subjugation? It's not enough to say, "With some time to reflect, we do feel absolutely rotten about it. Sorry." Sincere apology, the kind that has real impact and actually matters, comes with an admission of responsibility and a deep expression of authentic remorse. According to Aaron Lazare, the author of On Apology, an apology also restores the self-respect and dignity of the offended party, includes assurances that the offense was not the victim's fault, and provides reparation for the harm caused.

Consider the case of a fourteen-year-old boy who sat in the dark on the steps of his school, waiting for the Denver fire and police departments to arrive. He'd just broken into the building and vandalized it in a state of uncontrolled rage. But once the damage was done, he'd felt so terrible about it that he pulled the fire alarm and simply waited -- to apologize. As the case was investigated, authorities learned that his mother had died a few years before and that his father had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and didn't have long to live. The boy said he had been angry with his teachers, at how hard school was for him, and about everything else in his life. Yet he apologized and really seemed to mean it. In mediation, he heard the distress expressed by others in the school; surely he could understand that the destruction made students feel unsafe. He also heard expressions of concern for his situation and a desire to help him. The Acquiring Restitution Through Talent, or ARTT, program provided the means for him to work off his debt to the school by selling a variety of things he made with his own hands. And in the months it took him to make restitution and try to cope with the death of his father, he saw that strangers cared about him and that it was possible to make things right again.

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