How to Apologize and How Not to Apologize: When “Sorry” Isn’t Enough

Is saying that you are sorry the same thing as making an apology? Indeed, many of us have said “I’m sorry for your loss” too often to keep track: to relatives, friends, business associates, and acquaintances. Were we trying to apologize or attempting to provide a consoling message? Were we admitting guilt for what happened or expressing sympathy?

The answer should be easy. When we say that we are “sorry for the loss” we are voicing concern and attempting to comfort, not taking responsibility for the death. Unless, that is, we specify that we caused the demise of the loved one. But ordinarily, we are communicating that we are sad that it happened, not culpable.

When a person is, in fact, blameworthy, he has not necessarily done something terrible. Accidents do happen and sometimes injuries are very small. But, surely the most difficult apology to make must be to acknowledge one’s part in the death of a child. I bring this up because George Zimmerman, the man whose gun shot killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin following a conflict with him in February, is widely reported to have “apologized” to Martin’s family when he said the following in court at a bond hearing:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.

Yet, whatever his intention, Zimmerman did not actually apologize. Leaving aside the legal wisdom of making such a statement in court, I’d like to discuss what would have been required for Zimmerman to apologize rather than simply express sympathy, which is what he accomplished.

According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, one must:

  1. Acknowledge the harm that you inflicted — for example, “I broke your toy” or “I shoplifted the purse” or “I shot and killed your loved one.”
  2. Say that you are sorry for what you have personally done, admit that you should not have done it, and express remorse; not simply that you are sorry that a loss occurred.
  3. Attempt to compensate the injured party or parties in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by a cruel joke, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for you to make a public admission of your foolishness in front of the same people who were present when you embarrassed the other person. Similarly, if you broke his window, you would need to repair or replace it, or get someone else to do this.
  4. You must do your very best to make sure that your behavior isn’t repeated.

Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, making no excuses that diminish his responsibility. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without justifying it, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

Although George Zimmerman didn’t apologize to Trayvon Martin’s family, he did try to explain away his (unspecified) action when he stated, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am, and I did not know if he was armed or not.” If we look at the requirements of an adequate apology listed above, we can see that Zimmerman met none of them. He did not state that he was responsible for the death of the teenager and the pain that the family is suffering, he did not say that he was sorry for taking the action, he offered no compensation to the family, and he said nothing about changing his behavior (such as trying to avoid future conflicts or deciding not to carry a gun, for example). I understand that the legal process made some of this inadvisable, but that fact does not alter the definition of what an apology is and what it is not.

Clearly, we cannot and do not apologize for everything. But, if we spill some milk, it really is nice and proper for us to say that we are sorry for what we’ve done and try to clean it up. Most of us do, except for those times when we blame the other by saying “You shouldn’t have put the milk there” or expect someone else to mop the floor.

Apologizing can be surprisingly rewarding, even if difficult. It can help to repair injuries and improve relationships. Apologies can sometimes provide closure to those parties who have suffered significant losses, where adequate compensation is not possible. They can contribute to mutual understanding and lead to forgiveness and letting go.

An example of an attempt to produce such reconciliation between perpetrators and victims was the Republic of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created after apartheid was ended in that country in 1994. Apartheid was the white government’s policy of racial segregation, denial of human rights, discrimination, and mistreatment of blacks. The Commission included public hearings in which some of the victims testified to their experience. Perhaps more significantly, perpetrators of violence were also permitted to make public statements of their responsibility for wrong-doing and to request amnesty.

There is quite a distance between spilled milk and spilled blood, no question about it. But the possibility of reconciliation, however remote, can only come with a properly voiced apology and the expressed regret that should come with it. Life is full of disagreements, differences, and damage, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those who are able to feel remorse and admit wrong doing set the stage for the possibility of some amount of healing. Indeed, the perpetrator and the victim are very occasionally bonded together more strongly by the experience.

I hear you saying, “That’s a lot easier to say than to do.” True enough. As one of the members of the comedy team Cheech and Chong used to say, “Taking responsibility is a lot of responsibility.” Self-interest often recommends denial of fault, as in the case of a trial in a court of law. And yet, sometimes common decency, conscience, and a caring heart dictate that we try to repair what we have broken.

The first image is St. Francis in Meditation, a painting by Francisco de Zurbaran from 1635-1639. It is followed by an 1885 Caricature of a Marriage Proposal by H. Schlittzen. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beware of Therapy Past Mid-life: Reflections on Reading “The Sense of an Ending”

“Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Satchel Paige’s words suggest that life should be lived “full steam ahead,” not weighed down by regular retrospection. Most people take the advice to heart, at least to some extent, even if having never read it or heard it.

And, past age 60, my experience as a therapist suggests that such reconsideration of one’s own history becomes less and less likely. Unless tragedy strikes, a senior citizen who is a therapy virgin is not likely to seek the counselor’s services. No, the story that we tell ourselves about our life usually becomes fixed and — one must say it — self-serving, so that one does not become overwhelmed by remorse and the things that “should have” (or should not have) been done: the failed persistence, poor choices, and chances not taken; the damage done to others, including our children, our lovers, and our friends.

It is as if our old brain knows what our young brain couldn’t imagine: that there will come a time when there is not enough of a future to redeem the past.

We are, most of us, pretty well rationalized.

Yet this is what Julian Barnes’s prize-winning book The Sense of an Ending is about: the reflection upon and reevaluation of a life of 60-some years, by the author of that life, Barnes’s fictional narrator Tony Webster. And, if you are inclined to such self-analysis or even the common speculation about why people in your life do what they do, you might just find it the best work of fiction that you’ve read in a long time.

On the face of it, the story appears to be a simple one: a tale about pre-college friends including Tony, and his relationship with his first serious girlfriend; then losing touch with all those people, one of whom suffers tragedy. Finally, a jump of 40 years and the reinterpretation of that tragedy and those relationships, as well as his second-thoughts about himself. All of this occurs because of an apparently inexplicable event that disrupts Webster’s “peaceable” way of being.

Until that new monkey-wrench is thrown into the works, Tony thought he’d “wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” Somehow he’d trod a course that set aside youthful ambitions and hope for excitement, settling for things (and women) that were predictable and straight-lined. Eventually, he will realize that “We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.”

What he must now face — the way in which long-ago actions have continued to have consequences — is the mystery that Tony (and the reader along with him) will soon come to know.

The book raises a number of issues:

  • How much can you trust your own memory?
  • How much of your memory is selective and comforting?
  • How much are you responsible for what happens to you in your life?
  • How much are your actions responsible for what happens to others?
  • Past what point is self-reflection destructive or, to paraphrase a Jack Nicholson character, “Can you handle the truth?” assuming that it is knowable?
  • How much damage to others do even the most careful of us cause?
  • Is it possible to be completely honest with oneself?

Most of the time one does want to — need to — think that “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” The world would be too scary otherwise.

A simple example illustrates the complexity here:

In graduate school a friend requested me to help his girlfriend move some things from one apartment to another. Although I owned a car, I took the rapid transit and got off at the wrong subway stop, one station away from where I should have been. I didn’t realize until I walked a bit that it was in a terrible neighborhood. In the event, I arrived at my destination safely on foot.

But instead, you could have read this story on the next day’s front page:

Northwestern Graduate Student Murdered Near Cabrini-Green Housing Project

That no one did has always seemed to me a matter of pure luck.

What if I hadn’t been so lucky? Others would ask themselves, how did this happen? Doubtless, my friend would have found out; his girlfriend, too. Would they have felt guilty? Neither intended to set the chain of events in motion, yet both were a part of that chain.

As Tony Webster would say, “There is accumulation.” One thing leads to another.

Why didn’t I drive? Even I can no longer answer this question; I simply have no recollection of how I came to the decision to take the subway. Was it to save money? Was it because I thought it would be difficult to find parking? Was my car in the repair shop?

And why didn’t I walk back to the subway stop soon after I got off the train, the better to go to the next station? Shouldn’t I have been more aware of my surroundings and a little more terrified? Was I too cheap to pay another fare? And if I was, to what extent was that based on how I’d been raised, lessons learned at home about the dearness of the dollar? And if that is so, do my parents have some responsibility in the chain of events?

The example I’ve just given you might seem a bit silly, but I assure you that Barnes’s protagonist confronts a set of events that are much more compelling, involving real events and relationship complications, not things that didn’t happen, as in my illustration. But in both instances, one can ask oneself many questions: Why did I do that? What if I’d not done that? What if I’d done something different?

On the answers to these questions — really, on the actions themselves — lives can depend; at least the quality of a life.

The Sense of an Ending reminded me a bit of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. In each novel the author gives you enough information to put you in the position of an important character in the book, forcing you to live with the same incomplete knowledge that the character has of how things will end up. In Barnes’s work, this will likely cause you to want to reread the book, just as Tony Webster attempts to reread his life through letters and photos, the incomplete testimony of others, and his own imperfect and self-justifying memory. But at 163 pages, the rereading is just as engrossing as the first read-through (for me, just one day earlier).

If you believe that, in Kafka’s words, “a book should be an ax to break the frozen sea within us,” then know that this is such a book.

All of us are, or could be, like Tony or Lot’s wife, from the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot is the nephew of Abraham in the biblical Book of Genesis. Lot and his wife are permitted to leave before God’s destruction of the two famously iniquitous cities, but there is a catch. They are instructed by angels not to look back. When Lot’s wife does, she is turned into a pillar of salt.

Yet we must look back, mustn’t we? At least some of the time? Isn’t that how we learn? As a therapist, I would certainly say so.

But the biblical rejoinder comes to mind from Ecclesiastes 1:18:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Or in the words of Tony at the book’s end:

There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.


The positive aspect of looking back can be found here: The Handwriting on the Wall.

The two images are photos of Hamo Thornycroft’s sculpture Lot’s Wife. The first is the work of Yair Haklai. The second is the uploaded photo of Donald Macauley by Amada 44. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.