Why Quakers Should Learn to Apologize

Forgiveness is popular. Like mercy, "It blesseth him that gives and him that takes" (Portia, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).

Whenever I read praise for forgiveness, I wonder why apology gets such scant coverage. As an aspiring peacemaker, I am curious about the nuts-and-bolts practicalities of conflict resolution. I imagine that in a how-to manual on the subject, apology would rate a big chapter.

In fact, though parents teach us to say "I’m sorry" in the sandbox, most instruction ends there. And models are few. Fortunate children are sheltered from adult reconciliation as from adult quarrels, and the men and women who would make the best examples probably have the least frequent need to beg pardon.

Literature offers few illustrations. Apology would blight fiction, which gets its momentum from robust conflict. Religion encourages repentance but gives little practical guidance. Even politics, a fertile field for apology, isn’t much help.

I have taken late night classes in the field—Remorse 101, Advanced Regret, and Lexicology of Snits and Grudges. All were independent studies.

In my time, fashions in contrition have ranged from the impertinent, "Sorry about that," to the condescending, "I’m sorry you feel that way." Consider such banalities as, "Life’s not fair" and, "Shit happens," and taking the blame looks like an activity best accomplished quickly and with clenched teeth.

As seekers of peace, Quakers may get into fewer fights than many other people. Still, we make the most of those we have. We dissect and anatomize conflict. We ought to have turned into the world’s greatest apology artists by now. But like many others, we have avoided the topic, and with reason.

Apology can be scarier than conflict. The apologizer is exposed, without the armor of anger, and admits to imperfection and to needing the restored goodwill of somebody who has good reason to withhold it.

Molly Layton points out in an Utne Reader article, "Apology Not Accepted," that even being offended is potentially humiliating. Hurt feelings betray softness or dependence. Apologies may be cut short since the receiver "wants to keep the small dignity of acting as if she’s OK."

Here are a few suggestions for making the best of the process. Apologize soon. The vow not to go to bed angry that some couples make comes from the knowledge that rifts widen with time. Season your decision too long and you may find that the person you hurt has adjusted well to life without you.

Apply empathy sparely. Pressing kinship with someone you have injured may backfire. Should she entertain the idea that a proven cad may share her emotions? Better to express remorse about one’s own behavior than to try to voice the injured party’s feelings.

Bargaining dilutes apology. Never tell somebody you only did "y" because he did "x" first, or that you will meet him halfway. Blame is one thing for which nobody will fight you. Take it all.

Stand on ceremony. Apology may be private, but offenses that result in loss of face call for public restitution.

Give excuses. The bad name excuses get is undeserved. The injured person’s confidence has been shaken, both in you and in himself as a good judge of character and a person worthy of good treatment. By putting offenses in a more reassuring perspective, excuses restore lost confidence. Even a lame excuse may be welcome if it reveals the explainer as one from whom too much was expected in the first place.

Reconceive apology. Try to forget its connection with the fields of law and religion and even sports, where penalties may be intimidating and externally imposed. Instead, associate apology with art, where everyone is his own expert and revision is the norm. In this context, apology becomes the equivalent of the eraser, the white paint, the edit command, or the chance to "take it again from the top" and do better with practice. In art, the same materials that make a mess can make a masterpiece.

Prepare to repeat your apology. Prompt "letting go" of insults to body or mind is valued in a culture that prizes speed and newness, but this is often more easily said than done for the injured party. Forgiveness, unfortunately, may come in stages, and the reward of apologizing may be having to do it again.

Quakers in particular are in a good position to advance the art of the apology across class lines. Historically we have not been great fans of hierarchies and social distinctions. And we like the idea of speaking truth to power. Hardly anybody apologizes to power. It just isn’t done.

It’s fertile ground for Quakers. A teacher may insist that students apologize to fellow students, but he dispenses rebukes without ever expecting that the children will apologize to him. A slave on his way to the whipping post may beg for mercy, but it is unlikely that he will apologize. A reprimanding officer expects to hear, "Yes, sir," not "I’m sorry." An overbearing spouse may even react to an apology with anger or sarcasm, as if it presumes an inappropriate level of mutual give and take. Power relationships do not lend themselves to patching up, since from the start they are not grounded in common regard. This can work to our advantage, however: imagine the leveling effect of apologizing to someone whose rank leads him or her not to expect it.

Apologizing down the chain of command can be equally surprising and effective. Parents who begin apologizing to their children often report seeing them respond warmly when treated with respect that disregards their youthful status.

In relationships where the power difference is insignificant or shifting, apology aims at restoring the affection that has been the dominant tone of the connection. The approach of death is a traditional time for making an apology, and sometimes turns into the ultimate act of procrastination. Not only does limited time accentuate feeling, but the dying person’s status is in flux. Though often older than those he must apologize to, he may be weakened and vulnerable. Then too, he is confronting a mystery of which others are in awe and may be about to see the face of God.

Prayer may be the most impressive example of love negating the importance of rank. Though fear of divine retribution may motivate some, love is frequently the spark that jumps the power gap in prayers of confession and contrition. If you can apologize to the Almighty, couldn’t you apologize to any mere mortal?

An old song asks, "What can I say after I say, ‘I’m sorry?’" The world still wants to know the answer to that one. Quakers should learn to apologize better because somebody needs to. It is relatively uncharted territory in the world of peacemaking. I say, turn the problem over to some people who are brave, experimental, peaceloving, and unimpressed by custom or status. That’s us, Friends.