February 2, 2009

Say Sorry

There hasn’t been much in the news of late to inspire hope, despite Barack Obama’s assumption of office.  He warned us in his inauguration speech.  He was right.  Unemployment continues to rise, there is still war in the Middle East, people in positions of power — no matter their political affiliation — still don’t seem to understand that, as the newly minted senator for Illinois warned us, “one day a peacock, the next a feather duster.”

And yet.  Three times this week men publicly did the unthinkable.  They apologized.  This gives me great hope.

Barack Obama led the way.  “I screwed up,” he said over and over again.  He took full responsibility for having pushed nominees toward confirmation even after it was clear they had broken the president’s declaration that there would be no tolerance for even the appearance of impropriety in his administration.  Next thing I knew, Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, was apologizing for deciding to sell off artworks in the campus’s Rose Art Museum.  “I take full responsibility for causing pain and embarrassment in both of these matters.  To quote President Obama, ‘I screwed up.’”  Most astonishing of all, Elwin Wilson, a white man who reveled in his own supposed white supremacy, apologized to African American Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis for having beaten him to a bloody pulp 48 years ago.  “I just told him I was sorry,” Wilson told reporters this week


As if this were some small thing.

Any one of you lucky enough to parent knows how big a thing apology is.  “Hard” doesn’t begin to describe the task of teaching children to “say sorry.”  They certainly do not emerge from the womb equipped to take responsibility for their actions and repair the emotional damage they leave in their wake.  Who hasn’t heard a small child mutter, “sorry,” chin tucked to chest, eyes darting side to side, torn between furious self-pity and a desire to please authority?  Who hasn’t watched teenagers threatened with the revocation of privileges shuffle from foot to foot as they coughed out the most insincere of “sorries?”

Getting these wily ones to stand firm, meet a gaze, confess, and apologize is one of the hardest things I have labored to achieve in my life.  Maybe that’s because I came from a family that settled disputes by fist and fiat.  Since I didn’t know how to set things right when I married (and neither did Mark), we’ve both had to work on cultivating civility and extending apologies.  A good read: Douglas Stone, et. al., Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (NY; Penguin Books, c1999).  Also helpful: the Buddhist concept of “right speech.”  Is it true?  Is it helpful?  If not, don’t say it.  I’m guessing that Barack Obama’s mother and grandmother didn’t need books.  They knew most of the stuff already – and it helped them do an exceptionally good job raising him.  Ditto Michelle Obama’s mom.

The single most effective way to teach children to apologize is to do it ourselves.  When we say we goofed, when we deploy those powerful words of apology, when we move beyond facts into the realm of emotion and connect our actions to others’ feelings, we show our kids how to heal wounds we have inflicted.  We demonstrate that it’s possible to make really big mistakes and still love and be loved, introducing into children’s black and white certainty a mysterious shade of grey.  For Barack Obama, Yehuda Reinharz, and Elwin Wilson all to name their failures in public and “say sorry” shows a strength that fills me with hope. It is behavior that, as Dr. Aaron Lazare has written in On Apology (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004), requires “attitudes of honesty, generosity, humility, commitment, and courage” (263).

Now to get Hillary Clinton, who surely has heard her share of apologies, to start practicing at the State Department.  I invoke John Lennon: Imagine!