When I was seven and preparing for my First Communion, we were expected to go to Confession first. Back in the sixties that was a scary prospect, involving a dark booth, hell’s fire and spilling your guts to a shadow behind a screen. The only thing my seven-year-old self could come up with to confess was the time I stole a fancy little brush from Joyce Weber, my friend from down the street. I coveted that pink and blue plastic brush. My mom had already marched me over to Joyce’s house to hand the brush back and apologize. What more penance could there possibly be?

Seven ways to apologize:

  1. Don’t get defensive and be all, “I don’t have anything to apologize for!” Think about it.
  2. On your knees, groveling. Usually reserved for extreme transgressions like an affair. In that case, expect to grovel a long time but not forever.
  3. From the heart. When my son was three years old and banged his little sister on the head with Buzz Lightyear, my mother witnessed his apology. “That’s not a sincere apology,” she said. “He should mean it.” Well, he was three. “Form first,” I said. “We’ll work on sincerity later.” By the time he was five or so I figured he should be able to understand the concept of meaning it.
  4. With candy and flowers. Only to open the door or after the apology has been accepted, as a thank you. Do not expect treats to substitute for sincerity. No, not even a tennis bracelet.
  5. Face to face is best. And hardest. As my friend Steve said on Twitter, “Apologizing sucks.” There’s no way around it. A phone call comes in second. Email or direct message could work, as long as it’s guaranteed private. A handwritten letter is better, in my opinion. The writing needs to be carefully thought out when the advantage of voice and body language is absent. Texting an apology? You’ve got me there. Maybe for a 14-year-old? I don’t know, it may be a generational thing. I wouldn’t recommend it.
  6. Stick to the issue at hand. Don’t apologize for all the sins of the past. That can smack of insincerity. (If all the sins of the past is the issue, one apology won’t cover it. You probably need a mediator, like a pastor or a therapist.)
  7. Say you’re sorry once, genuinely said, with all the sincerity you can muster. Then let it go. Like a message in a bottle, send it off, be patient and hope it lands in receptive hands.

Receiving an apology isn’t easy either.

My mother wouldn’t allow me to apologize to her. Yes, my mother had a double standard regarding apologies. She was a complicated woman. She was of the ‘love is never having to say you’re sorry’ school, but only when it came to hurting her feelings, not those of others. Excuse me, but I always thought that was so much doggy doodoo. If you can’t say you’re sorry to those you love, who could you say it to? What was I missing here? It was crazy-making.

As the one usually doing the apologizing, this is what I appreciate from the person I’ve hurt:

  1. Be direct with me. Please. There is nothing in this world worse than a cold shoulder, or finding out from someone else. “You should know what you did!” is a hopeless statement. I know I have a bugaboo about this because that’s what my mom would say. I could never get mad at her for fear of her cold shoulder. For that reason I really appreciate directness. Tell me you are mad and why. Give me a clue and the opportunity to make amends. It hurts on both sides, but it’s an acute pain from which healing can begin.
  2. Don’t drag it out. The opposite of being direct could be stewing silently or nagging endlessly. If an apology is justified, wait for it.
  3. Have an open heart. There are usually two or more ways to look at a thing. Hopefully, once the white heat of anger and hurt burns out a bit you can poke around and see if you had any part in the problem. Try seeing it from your transgressor’s point of view, or from God’s. Compassion doesn’t replace the apology; it does make it easier to hear.
  4. Accept the apology when it’s sincerely given. You can tell the difference. If it wasn’t given honestly, there was no apology, thus nothing to accept. I’m not in favor of flip phrases like, “Oh forget it,” “You don’t have to apologize,” “It was nothing.” It’s too easy to go there when everyone is clearly uncomfortable. But you both know it really was something. A simple “Thank you,” followed by the offer of a stiff drink, usually works best.

Giving and accepting an apology with grace is just that. It’s a blessed state for you both: For the apologizer, because you chose to allow yourself to be vulnerable rather than get defensive; for the one who accepted the apology, because you used your power over a vulnerable soul with generosity of spirit instead of twisting the knife.

What a relief!

What about forgiveness? For most of us humans, forgiveness is another matter, involving trust, and that takes time to regenerate after a bad hurt. What do you think?

Photo courtesy of Xavier Mazellier via Flickr