I’m sorry: more and less than an apology

“I’m sorry.”  I used to hate that sentence as a kid when I was all too often commanded to say it to my brothers.  Usually my feelings were very far from true regret.  Instead, I remember feeling indignant.  Oh, the sting of having to apologize when I was the victim!  Even as a child it felt wrong to resolve the situation by speaking dishonestly.

We’ve all heard it before.  We’ve all said it.  Sorry is part of our everyday vocabulary.  And sorry has been around a long time.  Broadly used by 900 A.D. and originating from a very old Germanic word for pain, it referred to both physical and mental pain and was related to the word for sore.  By the mid-thirteenth century the meaning shifted to wretched, worthless, or poor.  

I’m no linguist but it seems to me that the word was, historically, sensory by definition.  It was about the pain a person feels, either through broken bones or an emotional wound.  But when I read about the shift of meaning in the 13th century, there I see a new dimension – spiritual pain – where sorry moves beyond feeling and begins to affect a person’s sense of identity.  To describe myself as sorry meant “I’m wretched” or “I’m worthless” or perhaps “I’m poor in spirit.”  This captures my attention and I hope it snags yours.  Here’s why.

Today we “I’m sorry” all over the place. 

When we bump into someone unintentionally or spill a drink – “Whoops, I’m sorry.” 

When we miss a deadline or forget to return an important message, it’s a sheepish, “Sorry.” 

And it’s our pithy go-to when something really bad happens to a friend like a miscarriage, an affair, a broken heart, a bad diagnosis, an injustice, a death.  “I’m so sorry.”

As a pastor I do a lot of counseling.  I can’t tell you how many people, especially women, repeatedly say “I’m sorry” when they cry.  (I have two very poignant stories about this later.  Read on.)

Frankly, I’m confused.  Is “I’m sorry” a polite apology meant for unintentional action, a simple expression of regret, an easy excuse to cover our awkwardness when we are negligent or irresponsible, or a consolation for life’s toughest trials?  For which situations is it an appropriate response?  Is it ever?  And I will pay you $10,000 to tell me what the heck it means to say “I’m sorry” to a woman who has just experienced her seventh miscarriage!  (Sure it could express “I feel your pain” which would carry much of the historical meaning, but is that was we really mean when we say it today?)

Here’s my concern.  We say I’m sorry so much, and across such a broad spectrum of circumstances, that the meaning is now muddled and the phrase impotent – it rarely expresses how we actually feel.  I’d really like people to think carefully about being sorry.  If I could, I would vote for a total reform of our use of the phrase.

Here’s the conundrum of this whole sorry issue – it’s what got me started thinking about this is in the first place.  Last week I spent time with a friend whose husband is horribly abusive.  I’ll call her Jane.  She broke silence to me several months ago but remains in her home and her marriage because of some very legitimate fears of what might happen if she leaves.  As I checked in with her, Jane told me stories that she had held back.  As she shared, tears poured out of her eyes.  She wiped them away constantly and apologized with the same frequency.

“I’m sorry,” she said.  Her eyes were downcast and her head hung dejectedly.

“There’s no need for you to apologize to me. You are going through a terrible thing and tears are totally legitimate,” I responded.

“I’m so sorry,” she wept.

After some silence I asked, “Why do you feel you have to say you are sorry?”

“Because I don’t want to be a burden on you.”

My heart gave a hard thud and my own tears welled up.  To me this was so simple.  I said quietly but earnestly, “But listening and caring are what friends do.”

Suspiciously she asked, “Did [so and so] ask you to spend time with me?”

“No, I called you because I could see the pain in your eyes.  I knew it was time to check in.”

“So you pity me.”

“No, Jane.  This is what love looks like.”

Jane cried even more and apologized again.  “I shouldn’t burden you with this.”

And so our conversation went.  God, the pain this woman has experienced, is experiencing!  And to listen to her apologize for her tears.  It just rips me right up!  As a follower of Jesus, I have a firm conviction to lean towards people in pain, to offer my love and support even when my selfish human instincts tell me to run the other way. 

This hour spent with Jane got me to thinking that I hate the phrase, “I’m sorry.”  It’s so misused and misapplied in our world and nowhere does it make me more upset than when I hear people apologize for their tears or their pain.  It’s not fair that Jane and people like her have been made to feel guilty for the abuse and guilty for burdening others.

It reminded me of Tara (another pseudonym), a college student I mentored for several years.  She apologized more than anyone I have ever met.  It was attached to nearly every paragraph she spoke.  At first, I thought it was just a bad habit.  I pointed it out to her, banned her from the expression in my presence and then scolded her when she couldn’t help herself.  More than somewhat dim and with much growing to do as a counselor, I finally took a new tack about a year and a half into our relationship.  One day she was in my office apologizing right and left and I was getting annoyed.  I finally broke down and asked, “What do you have to feel guilty about?”

“I’m sorry?”  she asked.  (Oh, the irony!)

“Well, you keep apologizing and it never makes any sense in the context of what we are talking about, so there must be something more to it.  What are you guilty of?” 

I asked that assuming there was nothing, that she would see the foolishness of her constant apologies, stop it and move on.  Nothing prepared me for what came next.  She froze and held her breath for a few seconds.  Then she threw out these words with raw desperation:

“My brother molested me!” 

Her story tumbled out of her for a long time.  I sat stunned, listening to her feelings of guilt and shame.  I realized that I was the utterly foolish one – I didn’t for a second think that there was anything hiding under all her apologies.

Jane and Tara show the true irony of our modern use of the phrase I’m sorry.  They spoke it as an apology for having feelings like guilt and shame, which objectively speaking, victims shouldn’t feel but commonly do.  However, the words “I’m sorry” linked with their tears and their pain is spiritually on target.  Sometimes pain is so intense, situations and their effects so horrific, that what we feel begins to mesh with who we are.  “I feel ashamed of my life” becomes “I am a shameful person.”  “I feel like I did something to cause my abuse” becomes “I am responsible for my abuse” which turns into “I am worthless.”  When a victim says they are sorry, nothing could be farther from the truth of their circumstances or a better expression of their pain.

I’m sure Jane and Tara weren’t using “I’m sorry” with its 13th century meaning of wretched or worthless.  But if you read between the lines, the clues are there just the same.  And now after my linguistic research and a lot of introspection, I feel a bit wiser when I regard the world. 

Next time I hear someone apologize profusely or inappropriately, I’m going to ask myself all kinds of questions.  Might these unnecessary apologies be hinting at a deep insecurity?  How can I respond with compassion instead of careless dismissal?  Was this a casual idiom or something more?  And when someone apologizes for experiencing legitimate emotions, I’m going to wonder who or what taught them that how they feel or who they are is wretched or worthless.

I am one of the millions of victims who habitually apologize when we cry.  I’ve been intentionally trying to change this behavior for the past several years.  I’m proud that I rarely say I’m sorry when I cry now and my internal dialogue is much more compassionate.  But it was a very difficult change to make.

I am one of the millions of perpetrators who have said “I’m sorry” as meaningless filler in the face of someone’s deepest pain.  As a hospital chaplain, I learned to abolish it from my caring vocabulary because it is never received as comfort.  Instead, I’m building a vocabulary of silence and touch as valid and poignant consolation.

I’m one of the humans whose apologies were lies because I was too caught up in ‘righteous’ indignation or embarrassment and needed to escape.  I’m learning to listen first to those I’ve hurt and if I’m not there yet, to tell them sincerely that I have heard them and that I need some time to sit with their words.  And I’ve learned that to return to them and offer “will you forgive me?” means a lot more in our culture and times than a simple, “I’m sorry.”

Thoughts?

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