National Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held in Australia on 26 May, since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal population. I imagine many Australians might feel the whole idea is just a hollow attempt by “the white fella” to soothe his conscience about the past, and that an apology is just empty words.
But the words “I’m sorry” can be very powerful. Sincere apologies create unities where there were disunities. Certainly they unify people relationally, but they also unify something inside people – the disconnect between our baser, selfish instincts, and our higher moral standards.
An apology is an act of self-debasement. Whoever is apologising is wilfully placing him- or herself in a lower position in regards to the other, they are humbling themselves, admitting imperfection and blame, and making themselves vulnerable.
When one person sincerely takes responsibility for hurting others or for contributing to the rise of tensions, it immediately takes the wind out of an argument and deflates rising passions. It makes us feel, not only better about the other person and the situation, but about ourselves too.
An altercation with my late father was never over until his child or wife said, “I’m sorry, you’re right, I’m wrong, I admit it.” It came to be a bit of a family joke. The other day when I, only half-jesting, said it to my daughter she commented: “It is amazing how satisfying it is to hear that from an adult!” I retorted, “And from a child too!”
A good apology helps both givers and receivers to successfully pivot from the past to the future by expressing, firstly, wrongdoing in the past (e.g. “I’m sorry I said those things”); secondly, regret and empathy in the present (e.g. “I know that you feel betrayed”), and thirdly, change and reconciliation in the future (e.g. “I hope we can still be friends”).
So basic to human life is the spoken apology that it is one of the three first things we teach little children to say. “Say, Thank you.” “Say, Please.” “Say you’re sorry.” Significantly, saying each of these phrases hurts our pride and independence just a bit and reminds us that we are not isolated islands, able to get through life on our own. We are interdependent, relational creatures.
Christianity reflects this too. Think of the Biblical book of Psalms. One can almost boil all the Psalms down to thanking God, asking God for help and admitting to God our limitations and failures.
Strangely, though, the words “apology” or “sorry” are not in the Bible. Instead the Bible uses the word repentance, which incorporates the concept of not only feeling remorse for what we have done or said (or failed to do or say), but turning 180 degrees from the way we were going, changing our thinking about the issue and doing the opposite. The term has a change of action built into it – one cannot repent and then continue as before.
2 Corinthians 7:10 says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” We can have a superficial sorrow like a child that is only sorry their naughtiness has been found out, or we can have genuine remorse for how our actions have hurt others and a desire to change in the future.
And it is those apologies that are hardest – that we most resist giving because they make us gulp down our pride – that are in fact the ones that are most profound.
Who do you need to apologise to this Sorry Day?