20 November 2012

On Apology

I’m been thinking about apology. About “I’m sorry” and the act of saying it. I think we utter “I’m sorry” as often and as perfunctorily as we utter “How are you”
There are the obvious moments when “I’m sorry” might be the only response, as when I step on someone’s foot, for example, or spill my glass of red wine on the clean white tablecloth, events perpetrated without malicious intent—indeed, with all due respect to Sigmund Freud, without any intent at all. I am sorry, I say, and in that apology I acknowledge what it is I have done, but say as well that I did not in any sense intend to commit this regretful deed. I am sorry for the deed.
And then there are those moments when I attempt to accomplish some task without realizing much success, as when I fail at assembling my child’s new bedroom furniture that arrives with detailed instructions written by someone who has not done well in her technical writing class, I complain. I look at the scattered pieces and the multi-page manual and I moan, “I’m sorry” before I call someone with the requisite expertise. Or in a related sense, I utter “I’m sorry” when I have almost completed said construction but discover that several pieces remain yet lying lonely on the assembly floor and the furniture leans a bit to one side or appears in places somewhat upended. I am sorry for the deed insufficiently realized through all fault of my own.
And then there are those times when I have acted and/or spoken irrationally (though speaking is itself almost always a performative act, I think!) and I express regret for words ill intended and badly phrased. These, I think, are events that are ultimately as easily recognizable as the first instances noted above, though clearly the intentionality here exists and is not meant well. Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street” is a clear example of this instance: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is to see you!” In a quieter, less bitter moment I apologize and acknowledge not my feelings that maintain their legitimacy but my needless and inappropriate expression of them. The derisive statement was more about me than the other.
And then at times I apologize that there exists too much injustice and cruelty in the world, and that too many people go to bed hungry and alone and suffering, and though this situation is not my fault directly, yet the knowledge of these conditions remains my burden. So is it with my regrets concerning death and illness: I have no role in the events but neither have I any ability to alter the outcome. My apology speaks of my powerlessness and my ultimate regret.
But there are times when my actions have been neither maliciously conceived nor heartlessly intended. They proceed from no accident. Indeed, the act I commit emanated not from who I am at the moment but the self I have brought to the moment; the act was not a choice but a necessity of Self. I could have done something else but then it would not have been I who acted. And to say “I’m sorry” in this instance would be a denial of myself. I have business and desires and of them I am comprised and from which I act. To behave contrary to these business and desires is to behave contrary to my self. They are not an accident of circumstance, neither the result of an inadequacy nor a malicious ill-conceived event, but an authentic expression of self. As Dylan says in “I've tried not to ever hurt anybody/And to stay out of the life of crime.” There is only a bit of equivocation in Dylan’s assertion: he may have tried not to hurt anybody, but that doesn’t mean that no one got hurt. And in fact the statement might itself be understood as a kind of apology. But here the intention is important. Though Heschel somewhere says that a deed that ends badly is not a good deed regardless, and that a deed committed with evil intent that results in good is regardless a good deed, sometimes a good intent does matter. We are not ever in control of all the factors that determine results.
And if the act stemmed from some ignorance, then it was an ignorance of which I was not yet aware. How can I apologize for my ignorance when my life demands that it exist. Here “I’m sorry” demands my apology for what I could not yet know. Nathan Zuckerman’s low assessment of Swede Levov results from such ignorance: “I could not have been more wrong about anything in my life,” he writes. But the statement is not an apology but an admission.
I think of Hawthorne’s minister who donned the black veil as the external symbol of his internal sinfulness. I would needs wear a badge, like Hester Prynne’s Scarlet A  that reads “I’m Sorry” to excuse my every behavior that offends someone.
Perhaps it is patience we require to live more peacefully in this world. Dylan again: “You’re right from your side and I’m right from mine.” Two rights don’t make a wrong, indeed, but they do make trouble.
I prefer Whitman’s motto: “Do I contradict myself. Well, then, I contradict myself!” Live with it!


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