My first year of teaching I had a conversation with a young woman about CS Lewis’s position on dissection. She insisted that Lewis opposed it. I, as a Lewis buff, knew that he had never said anything of the sort. A good week went by and the young lady grew quite angry. Finally she produced Lewis’s essay denouncing vivisection and I basically blew it off. For obviously, vivisection is different than dissection. Something like five years later I realized with a start that I had totally botched the whole thing. The girl had always been talking about vivisection the entire time! She had been saying the word vivisection and I had been hearing in my mind the word dissection. Even with the essay in hand I hadn’t realized my folly.
I can’t say that I handled the matter very well and the girl stopped having discussions with me but I am now unable to issue an apology, which is long overdue… Jonna (and Chelsea is owed one too, for other reasons)… if you happen to find this blog please accept my apologies. Didn’t you have a brother, too? He was Stark raving hilarious, as I recall. Give him my regards.
The reason for telling this story now surrounds my recent musing about contrition. Issuing a genuine apology is a really, really difficult thing. I’ve been married for going on 11 years so I have had ample opportunity to practice, and have been gently informed I still have work to do. Then there are times when you have to apologize to your kids, too. Truly the list of people I have had to apologize to is massive, and the ones who are stilled owed one is mighty long, too. Not cool, as I reflect on it. It is much easier to think about all the people who owe me an apology rather than count the ones I owe.
The thing about a genuine apology, of course, is that you have to actually think you’re wrong or were in the wrong. This is what makes 95% of the apologies we hear about in the news just completely unbelievable. You have all heard about the visiting guest preacher at Obama’s (former) church, who launched into a (frankly hilarious) tirade on Hillary Clinton. Check out the guy’s enthusiasm:
Immediately afterwards, the Catholic bishop brought the smack down on Michael Pfleger. Pfleger released a statement saying,
“I regret the words I chose on Sunday,” he said in a statement. “These words are inconsistent with Sen. Obama’s life and message, and I am deeply sorry if they offended Sen. Clinton or anyone else who saw them.”
No way, man. For comments as passionate as the ones he made, if it had been me, it would have taken me a good week to be convinced I was actually wrong and then at that point a solid one or two days to go through the cycle of denial and self-justification to get to the point where I can really begin pondering how to approach my apology. Politicians and public figures seem to be able to go through that cycle in a matter of minutes. Besides being completely unbelievable, it concerns me that the general public seems to be satisfied. Does anyone really believe that Pfleger has changed his mind, really? Apparently. People seem to accept Obama’s apology for his participation in this church for 20 years. Uh, yea. For myself, I hope I don’t break down outside that church. With that kind of contrition around I might end up lynched on first glance.
True contrition is a difficult, difficult thing. It can’t be pulled off on a dime unless you’ve spent a lot of time practicing it. At the same time, human nature is such that the immediate reaction is to justify one’s own conduct, even when they see that it was wrong.
I said earlier that there are times when I have to apologize to my kid. I hate to have to admit that, but I do believe that it is good for children to see parents and other adults go through the cycle and respect even the kids enough to know that the offense against them is as real as an offense against anyone else. Hopefully, this models something really substantive, as all relationships worth a darn will have need for occasional contrition. You can’t live with people without screwing up eventually. Such modeling is critical to showing how that works.
But when I survey the manner of apologies in our culture and how blandly they are accepted I get concerned. Deep wounds don’t go away just because you throw a band aid on them. If you really think you hurt someone that deeply, then your response will have to be proportional. Your conscience will demand it. We are modeling band-aid contrition in our society, and I have to imagine that it is only a matter of time before the chickens come home… to roost.