SORRY & FORGIVENESS
In 1976 Elton John had a hit with ‘Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word’, a poignant song of lost love and opportunity reflecting a problem that confronts many of us. Many of us have a fierce inner resistance to admitting fault and saying sorry. For many of us, we’d rather be right than happy. I’m speaking from direct experience.
The song certainly resonated with me. I was 33 years old and in my first unhappy marriage that was stumbling between acrimony and resentment. I was very big on self-righteousness.
Was I ever in the wrong when the relationship regularly erupted? Never!
Did I ever take responsibility for my vitriolic tongue lashings and moody outbursts? Did I ever apologize? Never, ever – not once!
To my wife’s credit, the flames of her fiery Eastern European temper invariably burnt out rapidly and she would always be the first to say ‘sorry’, while yours truly always took the holier-than-thou position of the wronged innocent victim.
Even now, many years later, I still struggle with the ‘sorry’ word, even though I always feel released and liberated whenever I admit I’m wrong and have the courage to say it. My resistance revolves around my precious ego – an ego that strongly believes to say sorry is an admission of personal weakness. Therefore, to protect my flaky self-esteem, I am urged by that saboteur in my mind to commit perjury and defend the indefensible.
But at what cost?
Yes, my inflato-self puffs up for a little while, like Toad of Toad Hall, having seemingly won the battle. However, another part of my mind always catches up with me, reminding me of my blatant denial of the truth. While I think I might have fooled others, I know I haven’t fooled myself and, as a result, guilt kicks in and my false self-esteem has been blown out of the water.
When I muster up enough courage to say “I’m sorry” - after one of my periodical outbursts when I’ve lost it because of anger or fear; or when in one of my black dog moods I’ve vomited all over some easy target in order to project my pain away from me – I’m desperately seeking forgiveness.
I want the person I’ve hurt to understand that that wasn’t the real me lashing out in a hurtful and vindictive way. That it was the crazy and out-of-control ‘little me’, my ego, seemingly trying to protect my thin skin or ‘best interests’, by dumping my guilt onto someone else rather than taking personal responsibility for my attitude and behavior.
By saying ‘sorry’, I’m asking for forgiveness. I’m admitting fault and taking responsibility for my behavior. I want my ‘sin’, or mistake to be pardoned, overlooked and forgotten. I want the person I’ve hurt to look past the pain I’ve inflicted on him, to look past my viciousness and the unfairness of my actions and say to me (at least in his mind), “Don’t worry, I know you’re better than that. I know you only made a mistake and you have the opportunity to learn from it. I know that within you – like in all of us – there’s a spark of goodness and kindness much more powerful and wiser than your little ego self. I release you from the guilt you bear as a result of your actions.”
Well, that’s what I want after I’ve attacked and hurt someone and I’m feeling guilt and remorse and genuinely sorry for what I’ve done. However, this is a big ask of the ‘victim’ of my attack, because truly forgiving the one who’s hurt us, doesn’t come naturally to us and runs contrary to the usual way the world looks at forgiveness.
The way of the world is not to see the person who has hurt us as only having made a mistake. And to expect to see the light of goodness in someone who’s just hurt us, I find, is a bit of a stretch to say the least. Most times, for me, the guilty perpetrator, regardless of his apology, has to pay and at least deserves condemnation, if not punishment. This is usually the way the world reacts.
Whenever I’ve been on the receiving end of an attack or I perceive I’ve been treated unjustly, only very rarely have I been prepared to resist my ego’s lust for ‘justice’ and retribution and truly forgive the perpetrator. No, usually I’m not prepared to let the offending person off the hook so easily. At best, if I accept the attacker’s apology – it’s conditional forgiveness, not unconditional, or true forgiveness. Conditional forgiveness is forgiveness with strings attached. It’s not about forgiving and forgetting. It’s about reminding the offender of his offence, making sure he feels guilty and placing myself in a superior position as a result. It’s certainly about reinforcing the offender’s guilt, not removing it.
Doling out conditional forgiveness may make me feel right, but does it make me happy? Initially I might bask in being the winner by putting the loser in his place; however this glow of success is always temporary. Before too long seemingly inexplicable feelings of guilt take over and any happy feelings quickly evaporate.
On those rare occasions when I’ve been inspired to forgive unconditionally, not a scrap of guilt rushes to the surface and, even if I’m not bouncing about like ‘Mr. Happy’, I certainly have peace of mind. Also, the effects on the person forgiven for his mistake can be extraordinary. I have witnessed remarkable responses. First the shock of the ‘offender’ for not being accused and condemned by me. Then the relief when he realizes that I choose to overlook his behavior and truly forgive him. This takes away the person’s guilt and urge to defend himself, or even launch a counter-attack. True forgiveness is definitely WIN/WIN.
Well, how come I don’t offer true forgiveness every time I’m attacked, you may well ask? The answer is because I’ve been hard-wired to my unforgiving ego for most of my life. During that time I thought my ego was either really me, or at least my best friend and protector. However, I’ve been conned. The ego seems to only act in my ‘best interests’ at the expense of others. Either no-forgiveness-and-attack, or conditional-forgiveness, are its stock in trade. Guilt and unhappiness inevitably follow.
If we all have a spark of goodness within us, which I truly believe, it surely doesn’t come from that part of our mind dominated by the ego. Somewhere, in part of my mind, there is a good guy struggling to escape the tentacles of my vicious and self-defeating ego. This spark of light may be dimmed for much of the time, but it can never be extinguished. One way to fan the spark and set it alight is for me to admit fault and say ‘sorry’ when I’ve lashed out and hurt someone.
Another way is to unconditionally forgive someone who has attacked, hurt or offended me. Both of these are hard asks, but I’ve found their positive effects are truly transformational.
When ‘sorry’ becomes the easiest word for me to say, and when I’m willing to truly forgive someone who has hurt me, perhaps then I’ll be able to look at the face in the mirror and say, “Well done. I think you’re going to make it”.