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The Magic of Apology by Rev Dr. Linda Anderson

          In this time of New Year I'm looking back on 2019 and forward to 2020. There is much to celebrate. Much to feel grateful for. And there is much to lament and feel sorrow over. We human beings are a mixed bag. What causes me particular pain these days is what I call our growing estrangement from one another as people. The more we break into "tribes" and draw lines in the sand, the less able we are to see one another as human beings like ourselves. One way that this estrangement shows up is that we as a society and as individuals increasingly justify our own regrettable actions by blaming other people. The sense of mutuality in relationship that connects us is eroding as we take less and less responsibility for our part in any interactions. One way I can see to counteract that tendency is through a practice of apology. Apology: a regretful acknowledgment of error, offense or failure.
          Apologies well done are magic. Apologies poorly done usually cause more harm than good.  A well done apology arises from a combination of regret and compassion.   We become aware of the negative consequences of our thoughts, words and/or actions. We might want to let ourselves off the hook by proclaiming that we didn’t mean it; our intention was not a negative one. Intentions, though, are but one side of human interaction. Regardless of our intentions, what we say and do has an impact on others. The impact may be beyond our control but it is not beyond our responsibility to address. This is where compassion comes in. By compassion I mean an understanding that whatever the other person is experiencing  is real for them. Our feelings are real. They may not always be accurate indicators of reality, but they are real for the one experiencing them. They are not to be dismissed, but rather responded to with compassion. Our actions and words can have unintended consequences and if painful to the receiver, we might very well feel regret for the suffering we have caused.  We might not even have done anything we would call “bad” or “wrong”. All the same, the consequences were painful. We can regret that and express our regret in an apology that says I’m sorry I caused you pain.
 Further, a well done apology does not explain, excuse or justify. It simply takes responsibility for what one said or did, even when you’re not the only one in the wrong. I did this and I’m sorry. Such a taking of responsibility, while humbling, is also freeing and strengthening. At the same time saying I’m sorry is not the same as asking for forgiveness and we would do well not to expect forgiveness just because we apologize. Whether or not someone forgives us is up to them and their own internal processing.  Nevertheless, saying I’m sorry can be an act of self-forgiveness. Some of us might have a tendency to judge ourselves by our worst deeds. We think we are unworthy if we have done something unworthy. Taking responsibility for those deeds and saying so out loud is an act of courage that helps to counteract our shame and restore our honor. It teaches us that we are not our worst selves. There is good in us and that good makes it possible for us to admit wrongdoing. Finally, a meaningful apology contains the resolve to change, whether or not spoken out loud. 
         An apology well done is magic. It’s magic because it can change the energy around the story. Apologies unstick us; they release us. Apologies can help us to heal from the wounds inflicted. They are a recognition of the injustice done to us and the validity of our reaction. They restore our dignity. They help to reconnect us to the one who offended us because the acknowledgment of the offense starts to rebuild trust. They comfort us because apologies show that the other person cares about and honors our feelings. They rebalance the power dynamic between us. They put our communication on a more positive track. Finally, apologies might come with reparations or amends of some sort. 
 So if an apology can have such an effect, why is it so hard for so many of us to apologize? That's a good question.


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