Spiritual Epiphanies: Understanding Why We Sometimes Can’t Accept an Apology
Photo by Daniel Y. Go
Not long ago, I was talking to Bev Walton-Porter about people who say they’re sorry and why we sometimes can’t accept an apology. From a spiritual standpoint, this has bothered me because for many people, I can accpet an apology, forgive instantly upon that apology, and move right along, but for others, it’s much harder to move on. The result of our conversation was an epiphany for me because I realized what I expect in an apology and what “sorry” means—or doesn’t—to me.
For me, I’ve never been able to accept a mere shrugged-off “Sorry.” It reminds me too much of the little boy who kicked me in the skins years ago, grinned, and said, “SSSSSorrrrrrryyyyyyyy!” Then did it again.
“Sorry” itself has never been enough for me. Earlier this decade, a woman I had gone to extra lengths to help bit me. Not literally, but it might as well have been. She was one of the first people to teach me to stop playing Good Samaritan to every wounded stranger. The situation had to do less with her than a friend of hers who’s a reviewer for a magazine that has mostly refused to review any of the books I’ve published. The reviewer wanted me to hire her as an editor (before I knew she was a reviewer) and I refused, for reasons that had nothing to do with her editing abilities and everything to do with her constant politicking. The woman I had been helping was not a very strong personality and she somehow got involved in the situation, panicked, and did some things that were very threatening to me legally and damaging personally. She has, quite a few times over the years, come back to me to offer her apologies for what happened and what she did. She takes responsibility for it, though with plenty of excuses about being bullied, but she has never undone the record she created–which would take less than an hour for her to do but would make her look like a lunatic to the police. It’s always about how she’s making these great efforts to ask my forgiveness, and she always makes things worse by trying to guilt me into forgiving her because I’m a spiritual person and should “understand.” She never did and has never done anything to “make right” her original actions.
And that’s part of the epiphany.
Thanks to Bev, I realized that I have never been able to accept this person’s apology because she’s done nothing to “make restitution.” She could have spoken up instead of playing the victim. She could have publicly announced that she was wrong and that she wouldn’t be bullied anymore by her friend in the publishing industry. She could have done so many things that would have reversed various written accounts of her testimony against me. Instead, she makes a yearly (at minimum) pilgrimage to beg my forgiveness and tell me how sorry she is for what she did. We have no other contact. Her apologies don’t mean anything to me other than rubbing salt in an old wound, but realizing why I can’t accept her apology is an epiphany for me. I don’t spend much energy on thinking about her, and I could probably wash my hands of it and move forward entirely if she didn’t keep coming back to tell me how I should forgive her. If she were in a 12-step program, she might realize her contact does more harm than good, but it’s still about her and how she can make herself feel better if I’d forgive her and not about fixing what she broke.
I wish I’d been more aware of this in my marriage and in my divorce proceedings. An angry “Sorry!” from my ex only hurt more, but when, right after I filed for divorce, he came back to me with promises not to do it again and that he’d change, I almost went back to him. In truth, had he held out another week or two with the changes he’d promised and the action he was taking, I’m pretty sure I would have stopped the proceedings. It was not only a sincere feeling of sorrow for the pain caused but also action to make things right that I could have and would have accepted.
It’s not just one-way though. When I make a mistake or do something hurtful (almost always unintended), I try to make things right. For me, it’s a matter of personal responsibility, and in accepting an apology, I guess I have to see taking responsibility and at least an earnest attempt to rectify the harm done. Meanwhile, I continue to try to accept people as they are, but that doesn’t mean I have to condone their flaws or enable continued hurtful behavior.