Why Won’t You Apologize?

“Okay,” [Charlotte] conceded. “Anything I did that was wrong, I apologize for. “But,” she added, […]

David Zahl / 2.23.17

“Okay,” [Charlotte] conceded. “Anything I did that was wrong, I apologize for.

“But,” she added, addressing Alice’s receding form with increasing volume as Alice got farther down the stairs, “anything I did that was not wrong, I don’t apologize for!”

There are at least four reasons why this little scene from The Last Days of Disco has been replaying itself in my head this past week. First, and most embarrassingly, I found myself issuing just such a non-apology to someone close to me the other day. I had made a boneheaded scheduling mistake that had seriously inconvenienced this person (again), and needed to address it. Yet the words that came out of my mouth were so hyper-concerned with taking the *correct* amount of responsibility–and not a smidgen more!–that the apology backfired.

Part of me clearly resented the fact that I was back in the position of having to say sorry (“Can’t you simply adjust your expectations of me already?!”), part of me was mad at myself. But the precision betrayed a reluctance that undermined whatever remorse was actually present.

The second reason this scene has been on repeat has to do with–duh–the air of conflict that’s been impossible to avoid breathing in since the election. I’m referring to the supreme lack of contrition and nonstop rationalization of anger that bombards even the most casual media consumer from all sides and tends to negate whatever’s being said. It’s like the world has become a massive divorce court in which we trumpet our “irreconcilable differences” as if they were a badge of honor, rather than the source of, say, enormous pain. (Heaven forbid we ever prioritize being kind over being right…) My inability to extend a non-overqualified olive branch made me wonder how I might be contributing to the toxicity.

Third, there’s the publication of Harriet Lerner’s new book Why Won’t You Apologize?, which has been getting covered all over the place, and for good reason. More on that below.

Lastly, though, there’s the passage from the Sermon on the Mount that was assigned in the lectionary a couple weeks ago, in which Jesus addresses the issue of interpersonal reconciliation more or less head-on:

“When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” (Matthew 5:22-25)

The passage follows directly from the injunction against anger (which, as we all know, Christ equates with murder) and prefaces the tough-with-a-capital-T teachings on lust, love of one’s enemies, and perfection. Like good ol’ Do-Not-Worry we tend to overlook this one in favor of the more glamorous targets.

While there’s more to reconciliation than saying you’re sorry–e.g., listening afresh to the grievance, offering restitution, patience patience patience, etc–an apology is certainly a big part of the deal. The first step, you might even say, and one worth focusing on.

To take Christ’s words at face value, making amends to those we’ve wronged is not a triviality but a matter of serious urgency. There’s a palpable “or else” which anyone who has lost a relative or friend before such a rapprochement could take place will recognize (regardless of whether or not they’re inclined to pay Matthew 5 any mind). Moreover, if you’ve ever had someone say sorry (and mean it), you know how healing a genuine apology can be.

So you don’t have to be religious to acknowledge the wisdom of Christ’s words. The world would be a much better place if we all stopped what we’re doing right now and made amends to those we’ve hurt.


Why, then, as Lerner asks in her title, don’t we apologize more often? What makes us so averse to obeying this particular New Testament command? Again, four possibilities spring to mind:

1. We don’t apologize/reconcile because we like feeling angry (and/or sorry for ourselves). Hurt feels terrible but anger gives us a sense of control. Frederick Buechner put it this way in Wishful Thinking:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

Anger is more insidious than other avenues of pleasure (sex/drugs/rocknroll) because we don’t consciously acknowledge it to be such. Thus, the “love to hate” phenomenon isn’t relegated to reality TV, or the entire news-channels that we electively tune into to “hate-watch” so that we can continue doing the backstroke in a sea of self-righteousness. An apology could entail relinquishing a resentment that we’d simply rather not let go of. It provides too much excitement or purpose or what-have-you.

2. Apologies are threatening. They diminish the “apologizee” because they involve giving something up, maybe your pride, maybe your sense of fairness, maybe something material or financial. This is particularly difficult for those whose sense of self is wobbly already. As Lerner writes:

“Non-apologizers tend to walk on a tightrope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem—they just can’t listen to anything that’s going to set them off balance…”

Ooof. There’s a power dynamic here, of course, one that often plays out along gender lines. Elsewhere she quotes a man who says, “it makes me feel weak to apologize. It’s like losing something and giving the other person the superior edge. And once you let your guard down, the other person can take advantage of you.” The comment betrays a view of relationships conceived as contests. Likewise, the practice of over-apologizing, which Lerner observes to be more common among women, can be the flip side of the shame-sized coin (it can also be a vocal tic). Both may be evidence of a core accusation against the self, a means of dealing with some form of ‘not-enoughness’ or law.

3. We refuse to apologize because we are waiting for someone else to apologize to us first. That is, the circumstances aren’t (quite) aligned yet–“I’ll do it when x, y, or z happens”. Which means we often wait forever. Rest assured, if our waiting for an apology tells us anything, it’s that there’s someone out there waiting for one from us. Scary to say the least.

Apologizing shatters the myth of our own innocence, and we may have built an identity around that. Thus we turn apologizing into a careful, well-timed exchange, a matter of parity and precision and etiquette, something to get “right” and therefore something bound to failure. If it sounds more like mediation, well, it is.

Fortunately, since virtually no conflicts involving two sinners are 100% black-and-white, there may be a way forward even when the balance of blame is severely lop-sided. Lerner wisely writes that “even when the offended party is largely at fault, apologizing for one’s own part in the incident, however small it may be” is a start. To take it a step further, the reconciler actively looks for something they can apologize for, rather than vice versa (cataloging outstanding grudges, etc).

4. We’re afraid the other person won’t accept our apology. It’s a legitimate fear, as they often don’t. Or maybe we’re afraid we’ll apologize for the wrong thing, or not strongly enough, or too late, or that we’ll re-offend at some later date and make it all worse. In other words, there’s some expectation we won’t meet, so we don’t even try. Again, the apprehension is not a silly or unfounded one, given our human nature (low anthropology).

Too bad Christ doesn’t seem to be concerned with the outcome. He talks about that elsewhere, sure (Mark 11:25), but let’s not complicate/dodge the issue at play here. He’s addressing the accused, not the accuser.

In this sense, I suppose an apology is an act of faith. All you can do is put it out there and see what happens. Of course, faithless generation that we are, we often hide behind potentialities in order to avoid the humiliation of supplication and/or vulnerability.

Ultimately, our aversion to apologizing cannot be separated from our addiction to self-justification. What is defensiveness, after all, if not the inevitable manifestation of leaning on our actions/works for righteousness? Lerner phrases it this way:

“When we adopt an attitude of terminal seriousness about our mistakes–or we equate mistakes with being unworthy, lesser, or bad–it’s more difficult to admit error and apologize for being wrong. A vicious cycle ensues because the inability to admit error, orient to reality, and offer a heartfelt apology only leaves the perfectionist feeling less authentic and whole, that is, even “less perfect,” which ten further heightens the resistance to apologizing”.

Okay okay, makes sense. But Lerner doesn’t leave us there, thankfully. She provides some nuts-and-bolts for potential apologizers. Namely, the best apologies are short and don’t include explanations that can undo them. In a recent conversation with none other than Brene Brown, Lerner commented:

Little add-ons like “but” (“I’m sorry I forgot your birthday but I was stressed out with work”) or “if” (“I’m sorry if that joke I made at the meeting offended you”) will turn your sorry into a not-sorry-at-all. Another common way we ruin an apology is to basically say, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry that what I said made you upset.”… You’re saying, in effect, “I’m sorry you reacted the way you did to my perfectly reasonable behavior.” A true apology focuses on our behavior, and not on the other person’s response…

In other words, just as with grace, the moment we add an “if” or a “but” we’ve reintroduced some form of justification and/or accusation. In the book, Dr. Lerner expands on that last part:

“The higher the anxiety in any system, the more individuals are held responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior (“Apologize to your dad for giving him a headache”) rather than for their own (“Apologize for your day for not turning the music down when you knew he had a headache”).

Sounds familiar. Yet the most daunting tip she gives is the last one, especially for those of us who cling to forgiveness so ferociously:

“Another fine way to ruin an apology is to view your apology as an automatic ticket to forgiveness and redemption, that is, it’s really about you and your need for reassurance. “I’m sorry” shouldn’t be viewed as a bargaining chip you give to get something back from the injured party, like forgiveness.”

She’s right about this. Tacking on a plea, or request–no matter how heartfelt or courteous (or sanctified!)–to an apology muddies the water. It mixes the messages. It embeds a condition, and if we know anything about conditions, they have a tendency of inciting resentment, not relieving it. Indeed, it would appear there’s an all-or-nothing dynamic at work.

Which might explain why Christ includes the injunction in his sermon. To hear what he’s saying is to be nailed to the wall. Given our colossal resistance to reconciliation–our fervent desire for the apologies of others and obstinate objection to offering our own–how can any hearer respond honestly beyond “Lord have mercy!” Christ is raising the Law to its highest pitch. Apologize now, dammit, or else. No excuses.

If only that were enough to engender remorse…

In the sermon I gave on the passage in question, I concluded with an illustration from This American Life, of a father absorbing rather than refuting the accusations of an estranged son, both the founded ones and the unfounded. The utter lack of defensiveness proves the key that unfreezes the affections and provokes fresh reconciliation. This father who allows himself to be defeated, even buried, who does not fight back but truly turns the other cheek.

To my mind, it was a beautiful picture of the God who surrenders his prerogatives in the face of the fiercest possible accusation and makes full/perpetual restitution on behalf of bad apologizers and non-apologizers alike. The good news that the only reconciliation that truly matters has already been accomplished by the one who demands it, and it wasn’t contingent on our contrition or sense of propriety, thanks be to God. There’s nothing partial here. No If’s, no But’s, just this:

Colossians 1:19-22 “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

That is to say, I’m sorry if this post was longer than you would’ve liked. But if it wasn’t, well, Moz knows the score:

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3 responses to “Why Won’t You Apologize?”

  1. Eric says:

    I had an exact picture of myself “doing the backstroke in a sea of self-righteousness.” That is an amazing turn of phrase!

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