To Owe an Apology
I was instilled with a deference to the established hierarchy. Not as a foundational layer of my existence, but as a learned survival skill that defied generations of instinct. With this lesson comes many things that I am still struggling to unlearn.
One of them being that I am a person who didn’t have to learn how to make a real apology.
Real apologies are, quite frankly, difficult for me to accomplish. I don’t like the frigid boiling churn that my guts dance when I realize that I owe one. I don’t like the mounting social debt that accumulates when they stagnate, and I don’t like the moments, stretched taut, of waiting for forgiveness — if it ever comes.
I realized, much later than was healthy, that it was a different set of dynamics that I had to learn how to manage.
Aaron Lazare*, author of On Apology wrote in an article in Psychology Today that
what makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended. By apologizing, you take the shame of your offense and redirect it to yourself. You admit to hurting or diminishing someone and, in effect, say that you are really the one who is diminished — I'm the one who was wrong, mistaken, insensitive, or stupid. In acknowledging your shame you give the offended the power to forgive. The exchange is at the heart of the healing process.
It all comes down to shame and power, doesn’t it?
Who has it? Who will share it? Who will cede it? Who will hoard it? Who has to bear it? Who is uplifted by it? Who is burdened with it? Who is the gatekeeper? Who is the dismantler?
Why is it hard for some people to watch this exchange without protesting its happening? Why are some people upheld as blameless (those who should retain power) and others labeled as usurpers (those who should retain shame)?
We bloom into our societies embedded with the knee jerk reactions of their bias and prejudice, so that when we watch the social currency of an apology being exchanged, it is as real as watching the reparation of any other debt.
These exchanges are the foundation of our social company, and we are all shareholders.
And in this framework there is a hierarchy of value.
Which is that the social currency of apologies owed reflects the same wealth inequities of the other currencies we value along with our comfort with who bears the brunt of debt.
Holding someone to account is an expectation of payment on all the good faith that has been credited to them. Avoiding accountability is to deny the reparation of this debt. When a community holds a member to account it is not to pursue them unto ruin — it is to allow them a chance to reimburse their good standing.
So when insistence reverberates through the community on there being “bullies” for whom no compensation is enough, we must interrogate whose power we are attempting to uphold — and whose shame.
*I am not fully in accord with all of the writings of Aaron Lazare. The use of the above quote is not a wholesale endorsement of their work. It is however, the recognition that one doesn't need perfect harmony to resonate.