When it comes to moral virtues, there is much talk about Forgiveness, but while forgiveness is a crucial aspect of getting along with others, it does not stand in isolation.
The other, much overlooked but essential aspect of forgiveness is that of Apology.
For example, the New Testament of the Bible, talks much about forgiveness, both with respect to forgiveness of sins and forgiving others. Jesus is famously thought to have the power to forgive the sins of his followers, but nowhere does one see him actually apologise for any of his own bad behaviour. These include lying (John 7:8-10), cursing a and withering perfectly good fig tree before trashing the Temple market stalls (Mark 11:12-21) and being involved in potentially deadly violence against the local constabulary (John 18:10).
Similarly, a search of books in print reveals many written on the topic of forgiveness, but few written about the virtues of sincere apology.
Ironically many of the books about apology, are rather about “apologetics”, which is the Christian field of study devoted to rationalising some of the gobsmacking errors and confusions in the Bible, including the transgressions of Jesus mentioned above.
This is a significant discrepancy. While forgiveness is hard, I think that the lack of appreciation for and discussion about apology shows just how difficult it is for people to apologise. It is so confronting that they’d rather not even talk about it.
The truth is that in many cases, forgiveness simply isn’t possible without an apology. Certainly, there is some considerable virtue in being able to forgive those who have hurt you, even when an apology has not been forthcoming. In these situations, forgiveness is less about the other person, and more about letting go of the impulse towards revenge and retribution. It is a recognition that one must move on from past transgressions against us, lest we become mired in dysfunctional, unresolvable emotions that will only destroy our lives.
Even with this in mind, an apology, when genuine reflects not only an inner awareness that a transgression has occurred, but also a commitment that the behaviour will not be repeated. A sincere apology is essential for the building of trust, because without any recognition of harm caused, it is almost certain that the behaviour will continue and the harms will inevitably magnify.
In practice, making an apology is fraught with danger and can take considerable courage.
When we apologise to people, we are admitting that we have not only made a mistake, but that our mistake has hurt people that we care about. To apologise is to let go of one’s pride and to drop the facade that we are perfect. Our own egos rebel at the very prospect, because our egos would rather justify all of our behaviour under all circumstances than face the reality that we are flawed, imperfect beings, who are struggling in a reality that we barely understand.
Apologising is fraught with danger in a way that forgiveness is not. In apologising, we are opening ourselves to the rejection of others. We are inviting not only their condemnation, but the very real possibility that they will seek to capitalise on our apology and extract concessions, or favours rather than offer the simple forgiveness that we might have hoped for.
Forgiving someone does not necessarily involve letting down one’s guard against future transgressions. For example, a wife may forgive her former partner for domestic abuse, but this forgiveness does not necessarily entail her resuming any form of relationship with that person. She is well within her rights to offer forgiveness, while acknowledging that trust has been irrevocably broken and that she doesn’t wish to have anything to do with that person any longer. Indeed, the genuineness of the initial apology will be shown by how accepting the abuser is of being offered forgiveness, but no resumption of former relationships.
The ability to apologise goes to the heart of your character. Who do you wish to be? Do you have the courage to behave in an adult way, or will you insist on continuing with childish behaviour that denies your own culpability while inevitably blaming others for your own behaviour.
Because the person who is incapable of offering apologies must necessarily find someone else to blame for the issues that they have caused. Inevitably this will revolve around shifting blame from one’s self to some external source.
Such a person will create toxic relationships because if they can’t blame their situation, society, or equipment, they will inevitably blame those against whom they have transgressed. There isn’t a whole amount of difference between the rapist who says that the woman was “asking for it” and the person who routinely says that someone else’s behaviour “made them so angry” that they lashed out.
In both cases, the true blame lies not only with the inability of the person to firstly control their negative impulses, but also to recognise that they and no one else is the only person responsible for their behaviour.
The only thing that we truly have control over is ourselves. In truth, the person who routinely shifts blame from themselves and who is incapable of apologising is one who has not only refused to exert control over the one thing that they can, but has simultaneously decided to try an exert undue and unfair control over things they can’t.
Such a strategy is doomed to fail and in failing, it is guaranteed to cause considerable damage to the person’s relationships.
Now I want to talk to you, the reader, personally…
In truth, none of us are perfect and we all make a mess of things on a routine basis. It is incumbent on us all to recognise when we are making such mistakes and to offer the necessary apologies.
If we lack the personal insight, or courage to recognise and admit when we are wrong, it will be impossible for us to ever live in a world dominated by forgiveness. We will forever be stuck in a world without love and without trust.
How can I continually forgive you, when your ego will never allow you to acknowledge the harms you have done? How can I extend trust, when I know that you will simply spit on me (literally) again.
Sure, I might not accept your apology, but that is my problem, not yours. Your apology is about who you decide to be and the person that you wish to be. Coward, or courageous?
I want everyone who reads this to make an apology that they know they should make, but have been too proud, or too scared to follow-up on.
If you honestly think that you have nothing to apologise for and nobody to apologise to, then you are almost certainly the exact sort of person that I am talking about.