I've been thinking this week about the words “I’m sorry.”
Suppose I say that I am sorry for interrupting someone mid-sentence, for forgetting to do something I had promised, or for hurting someone’s feelings with my thoughtless comment. Or suppose I say to someone, “I’m sorry I backed your car into that mailbox and tore up the bumper.” In those cases, “I’m sorry” is a confession, an admission of my own guilt, and an acknowledgment of my responsibility for what I have done or left undone. Perhaps I did not mean to. For example, my intention when I borrowed my friend’s car wasn't to damage it. But when I backed it into a mailbox, denting the bumper and breaking a tail light, I said, “I am sorry.” I apologized for what I had done. AND I paid to get the bumper and the tail light fixed. (For the record, I confessed to the post office about the mailbox, too.)
On the other hand, if I say that I am sorry that you lost your job, broke your ankle, got robbed at gunpoint, found yourself diagnosed with cancer, or felt publicly humiliated by something someone else said or did, I am not taking responsibility for being the cause of any of those things. I am not making an apology or asking pardon. I am simply acknowledging that I can identify with the feelings the situation has evoked in you, whether those feelings be fear, pain, grief, confusion, anger, shame, or one of the other emotions we usually label “negative” and often go to great lengths to avoid. It’s a way to reach out. To extend the hand of compassion.
The two kinds of “I’m sorry” are different. The first we might call a causal one. That “I’m sorry” takes responsibility for the pain, discomfort, inconvenience, or destruction my words or actions cause. The second is a relational one. That “I’m sorry” acknowledges a kinship. It says that as a human being myself, I understand what a fellow human being must be feeling.
Perhaps you, like I, have had the experience of saying the second kind of “I’m sorry” to someone, only to have that person reply, “Well, it’s not your fault.” That response has always seemed curious—to be absolved of blame that neither I nor the other person thinks is mine in the first place. But it is a response I have heard often enough to wonder: Do we sometimes completely misunderstand what someone is trying to convey when he or she says “I’m sorry”? Do some of us attach one meaning whereas others attach a different one?
If you’ve been watching the news in the last week, you know why this has been on my mind.
So here is my prayer: that we each give thought to how we use—and hear—even the simplest words. “I’m sorry” would be a good place to start, for though the words may sometimes sound trite to our ears or feel impotent on our tongues, they are important words, and we should be honest about what they mean in the various situations to which they are suited.
[You may also connect with The Sorry Project on Facebook.]