As I read the article on National Public Radio’s website entitled, “Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better,” I was struck by how deeply I disagreed with the premise. According to researcher Tyler G. Okimoto:
“We … find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have.”
Because of my own experiences with waiting, and needing, to hear a very important “I’m sorry,” I thought perhaps the story was really just an April Fool’s Day joke.
Women are champions at apologizing. Many times, for insignificant things. I have to catch myself to not automatically say “I’m sorry,” for bumping into someone. I practice saying, “Excuse me,” instead. So I understand that aspect of the “no apology” story. But I have to disagree with Okimoto for times when an apology is called for, because they’re meant to benefit the one being apologized to, not the one offering the mea culpa.
My mother and I had a complicated relationship, one I will never understand although I still think about it occasionally. When she disowned me for marrying a black man my heart had a crack in it. When my daughter was born, I expected her eventual return.
In books and movies the prejudiced parents always melt at the sight of their grandchild. They always feel the flood of love filling their hearts, washing away their bigotry. I was surprised when that didn’t happen in real life.
I sent pictures of my beautiful baby and waited for the letter back. The letter that would say, I’m sorry. Please let me meet my beautiful granddaughter.
The letter never arrived. The cracks in my heart turned into crevices.
I remember watching the movie Love Story as a young girl. When Ali MacGraw uttered those infamous words, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard. Because love means taking care of people’s feelings. Love means not hurting them. And when you do, because you will, it means saying you are sorry.
It takes a lot to say “I’m sorry.” It takes humility and courage.
Many years ago before my husband and I were married, a man glared at us each time he’d see us in the neighborhood. He glared at me when I was alone. I knew it angered him to see an interracial couple. One day we found ourselves on the bus with him. I looked out my window and watched him get off the bus. He turned, looked up at me and spit at my window.
Years later, after we’d married, we saw him again. The man came toward us on the sidewalk. I worried my pregnant bump would infuriate him. I waited for the worst.
He stood in front of us.
I want to tell you how sorry I am for the way I acted to you a couple of years ago. I was wrong and I need to tell you both how sorry I am.
My husband and I walked home, stunned, yet bolstered by the unmistakable power of the apology.
It is too late for the apology from my mother. I will never open the mailbox and see that envelope I dreamed about. But I still think about how much two words would have healed our very broken relationship.
So while not apologizing might make the person who’d be offering it feel good, a heartfelt apology, whether from a stranger or a loved one, is one hell of a powerful gift.
Contributor Joan Haskins has been writing her popular blog on Open Salon since 2009. She teaches yoga to children at Balasana Yoga, which provides material for many of her pieces. She is currently writing a memoir, which goes against everything she was taught as a child about not telling family business. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, and has one daughter in college who she misses on a daily basis.