It’s useful to notice what occurs to us as we doze off at night, and as we awaken in the morning. These doorways of the mind – as awareness departs and returns – set a certain tone as they launch and close the day. I recently found myself vaguely troubled as I crossed the morning threshold, and knew I had reason to apologize for something I’d failed to do.
Our sins of omission can be as damaging as our sins of commission, whether they result from a conscious decision to do nothing or are done in ignorance. Ignorance comes from ignoring something important, from overlooking something that deserves but escapes our attention. This very human mistake occurs frequently, as eddies that often form on the surface of the flow of the human condition.
That I hadn’t intended the damage I had done really doesn’t matter. Some 70 years ago, I hurt a young friend rather badly during a particularly vicious schoolyard game of dodge ball, and, as we all rushed to get first aid, I wailed, “but I didn’t mean to hurt her!” To this day I can still see my teacher turning back to me, exclaiming, “but that doesn’t change how much it hurt!” This was a lesson deeply learned.
When I discover that I’ve done something wrong, my reflex is to excuse it rather than admit it, to deflect potential criticism with some mixture of shame and its sibling, blame. And yet, as Shakespeare had Cassius say in Julius Caesar, “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The price of this admission is a humble participation, and the reward is finding ourselves included.
We say in our apologies that we are sorry; what we need to say is that we are sorrowful. It is appropriate and important to grieve the damage done to a relationship – and to the community, its human landscape. Grief is a digestive process, a recovery from harm by means of the emotional enzymes of anger, sadness, gratitude, and eventual forgiveness. In this way we recognize our mistakes as we look for reconciliation.
The mistakes that we make – the infringements that we visit upon one another’s boundaries – I think are normal, and no reason for shame. Shame and blame are primitive stages of encounter. We cannot immediately know the boundaries of another’s sensitivity; we must instead care enough to learn about them, and forgive ourselves frequently as we stumble along that long learning curve.
The only alternatives to encounter and participation are avoidance and isolation, which will put growth on hold. These scars that I have gathered on my body were once wounds; over time they will have disappeared, contributing to the increasingly rich complexity of my complexion. It’s not exactly that we’ve fallen from some ideal and perfect grace into a miserable and static human condition – we are instead constantly falling awkwardly, from birth until death, from foot to foot as we walk, working our way towards our gracefulness.
The first step always involves recognizing what we have done, as well as admitting our regret for any damage that happened as a direct result. The apology that follows neither denies nor ignores what we have done, but simply recognizes some sort of violation – whether conscious or not – bringing the voice of our remorse into the discussion. Expressing our regret is the best immediate response to the hurt that we have caused.
I can’t believe that anyone is inherently evil. If you drill down far enough you will find that the evil in a person did not originate there – it’s a force generated by some painful circumstance. Hurt people, they say, hurt people. It is a necessary part of the human condition to be vulnerable to circumstance; and though we may label events as good or bad, these terms are more a matter of perception and opinion than a matter of fact – a measure of our experience, but not of the fundamental nature of what had taken place.
We are all looking into the same room through different windows, and so what we see seems different from what we hear our neighbors see – we will have to be willing to enter that room, and to meet one another there, to know what we are looking at. And there, the differences between apology and forgiveness are melded into an agreement of acceptance. Reconciliation means regaining equilibrium; it doesn’t mean restoring the relationship to its previous state, but rather bringing balance to how things have become.
It was Keats who spoke of this life on this planet as a “vale of soul making” rather than a vale of tears. This process of soul making, by which we come to comprehend who we are becoming, requires encountering others and the necessary conversations of apology and forgiveness, of give and take. As Emily Levine said in a recent TED Talk, “reality comes into being through an interaction.” We cannot learn and grow without encountering one another, and we cannot encounter one another without encountering our differences – and accounting for them.
When I come to bed at night I like to say goodnight to each person that I had seen that day. Regardless of circumstance, I thank each one of them, and wish them well. Then, crossing the evening threshold into sleep, I find I sleep better – drifting off with a clear conscience, and returning refreshed the next morning.