An apology that is transformative and healing is a rare thing
A piece on the art of saying sorry went up at the Guardian's Cif yesterday. It had a slightly tortuous hook, but here's the main point.
You will be able to recall a parent leaning over you and commanding you to say sorry – perhaps to Auntie Maude on the day you spilt blackcurrant juice over her white tablecloth. The truth is that you did not feel sorry at all. You were bored sitting in her front room. Nonetheless, you forced the S-word through your lips because you had no choice – and it was fury, not regret, that accompanied your muttering. Presumably such an upbringing led PG Wodehouse to make a personal note: "It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them."
That's the trouble with demanding an apology. Intention is all, and when it is not given freely, the meaning becomes confused and probably lost.
Then again, if you were a smart child you probably learned to twist your apologies to your advantage. Most parents will have heard their loved ones treating the word sorry as a shortcut to getting what they want, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Sorry, Mummy. Can I go out now?" In this kind of scenario the power dynamics are reversed. Sorry becomes a too easy word to say because it gives apologisers the upper hand and enables them to redirect things to what they want. Oscar Wilde knew that trick: "I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose."
In fact, I wonder whether there is ever such a thing as a clear and genuine apology that is transformative and healing. A case that is discussed amongst therapists concerns a young girl who was hospitalised for various life-threatening psychological complaints. A nurse heard her murmuring, "Say you're sorry. Say you're sorry." In response, a doctor replied, "I am sorry. I am very, very sorry," and others in the room joined in with the refrain. The impact upon the child was remarkable and almost instantaneous. Within a week she had recovered.
It seemed to be a case capturing the magic of an apology. But a few years later, things again started going wrong for the girl, now a teenager. She was hospitalised and then spent several years as an outpatient until what was really troubling her was discovered. It turned out that the S-word served only to bury her problems more deeply.
Then again, a world in which no one ever said sorry is a bleak one to contemplate. Perhaps, then, a good apology is a temporary measure. It can relieve a tricky situation for a while by unfreezing things and allowing relationships some flow. The mistake is to believe that is the end of the story. What sorry might create is the time and space for considering more deeply what went wrong.