I recently sent a long overdue apology, for the one friendship of mine that had ended in a way in which I could have behaved differently. Maybe there were others, but this was the only one I’d clocked as having been at least partly my fault. It had bothered me for years. But a combination of two traits – personally disliking being contacted when it’s clear a journey together has ended, and the relative equanimity with which I accept that people have walked from me – had kept me from writing that apology. When I finally did, it was not to receive the other person’s forgiveness, but only to acknowledge my mistake. Nothing precipitated it, and no result was intended.
How we say we are sorry is quite separate from feeling remorse. Why we say “I’m sorry” can also be quite separate from remorse, as the late lawyer Deborah Levi’s theory on the uses of apologies in mediation indicated. She wrote that there are three kinds of false apologies: tactical (a strategic move), explanation (which can be defensive), and formalistic (after being admonished). There is a fourth, sincere category: the happy ending apology.
I have to admit I have a semantic quibble with the last category. Extending apologies, even heartfelt ones, don’t necessarily facilitate “happy endings”, nor should they be expected to. An apology cannot be about the outcome. Neither is it the end of the damage that was caused. In many cases, it requires a change in behaviour – saying it alone does not make it true, but proving it might. It’s not enough to teach a child to say sorry after they pinch another, without teaching that child to also never pinch again. Those who aren’t raised to know the difference become the kind of adults who say “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if”, as though the response and not the act that elicited it is the issue at hand.
Apologies also have a statute of limitations. In the first year or two after a messy breakup, an apology may be the cure to finding emotional closure. More water under the bridge and it can lose its point. It can become selfish, an act of requiring validation out of the emotional labour of the other party, without having offered one’s own emotional labour earlier while it still mattered to their healing. No apology that is about the sender and their needs alone is a true apology.
There are also certain things for which no apology can suffice. Should it be attempted at all? That depends entirely on the recipient and how they are likely to react, not the sender. We saw several public mea culpas in recent months, relating to the momentum of #MeToo. I wondered if there were private ones. Wouldn’t some of them be triggering to victims?
The friend whom I apologised to replied, generously, and we will try to reconnect. I hadn’t expected this at all, for I’d only wanted to register that I knew I had been mistaken. Maybe Deborah Levi’s last category wasn’t a misnomer after all. We’ll have to wait, and work at it, to see…
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.