I am writing to apologize about our date last month. I guess the fact that I have not heard from you and you have not returned my phone calls means that you are angry at me for what happened.
Let me explain.
I asked you out after my mother – who has been friends with your mother for many years – suggested that I call you. My mother told me that you were feeling down because you had just been dumped by your old boyfriend. I thought I was being kind and gentlemanly by asking you out to dinner, but I guess that was a mistake on my part. My bad.
While we were at dinner, I wanted you to get to know me better, so I told you about my childhood in Chicago and about my ex-stepfather who used to try to be “buddies” with me by taking me to basketball and football games, even though I hate sports. I also told you about the girls I dated in high school and college and how I have been unlucky in love. Sad, but true.
When you told me about your interest in American history – you see, I do remember that – it reminded me of a girl from my high school. I told you the story about how she had a crush on our history teacher and how she accidentally gave him a picture she drew of him surrounded by hearts and kisses instead of giving him her homework. So funny!!
I’m sorry you didn’t like that story and, I guess, I’m sorry that the other stuff I told you about myself wasn’t so interesting to you, either. My mother told me that your mother said that you complained that I wasn’t very nice to you. I don’t understand why you think that, but I guess you have your reasons. I just think it was all a misunderstanding. Maybe no one has ever taken enough interest in you before to tell you about themselves.
I guess the thing you disliked most was when I asked you to pay for your half of the meal. It only seemed fair to me, but I’m sorry if you don’t see it that way. I am agonized by the thought that you think I’m cheap or something! I’m sorry that I swore at you when you got up and left the table. That wasn’t very nice of me, but I don’t think your behavior was so nice, either. After you left, people in the restaurant were just staring at me and whispering to each other about me. That made me feel pretty small. So, you see, I was pretty hurt, too, by our evening together.
I’m writing this letter to you because my mother told me that I should apologize. I hope you’ll forgive me and, maybe, go out with me again some time. Next time, I’ll pay without you even asking.
Sometimes, apologies aren’t really apologies. Sometimes, words like “I’m sorry” and “I apologize,” are really just there to convince ourselves that we’re being nice when, actually, we’re denying, deflecting and blaming the other person. I’m sure you have received an apology that didn’t really apologize for anything. I know that I have offered what I thought at the time were apologies that actually just made a situation worse.
Offering a good apology is not just good etiquette. From the perspective of Judaism, apologizing is a commandment and an obligation. It could even be seen as a spiritual act – a sacred act. Learning to apologize well is learning to to be a mensch – a decent human being and a person of integrity.
Yom Kippur is a day when we focus on apologies because we are told that today is our deadline to make our apologies to the people we have hurt and to apologize to God. Jewish tradition teaches that, if we do this with sincerity, we will be forgiven.
When I talk about the need to apologize during this time of year, people often ask questions about the experience of being on the receiving end of an apology. They ask, “How can I accept an apology from someone who has hurt me so badly?” “Why should I forgive someone just because they say, ‘I’m sorry’?” “If I say, ‘I forgive you,’ aren’t I just setting myself up to get hurt again?” Those are all good questions and, there is no doubt, it is sometimes hard to accept an apology.
However, I notice that people want to focus on the apologies that other people owe them and they don’t often want to talk about the difficulties of being the person who needs to make the apology. That’s what I want to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what it means to make a good apology. I want to talk about how to say, “I’m sorry.”
So, let’s first think about what makes bad apologies bad. You know you’re about to hear a bad apology when someone says: “I’m sorry, but…” For example, “I’m sorry that you were hurt when my car ran over your dog, but you sure take these things personally.” That is not – in any way, shape or form – an actual apology.
“I’m sorry but” is just another way of saying, “I know that I should say something in the form of an apology, but I really think that I did nothing wrong.” Sometimes it’s worse than that. Sometimes, “I’m sorry but,” really means, “I know I have to apologize under these circumstances, but, really, I think you need to apologize to me first.” That’s not an apology. That is blaming – the opposite of apologizing.
Another way to make a bad apology comes in the form of “I’m sorry, but only vaguely.” This is when someone says, “I’m sorry about what happened” or “I apologize for anything that may have hurt you.” If you know that you did something wrong, and you want to be forgiven for it, then name it. Say what it is that you did. “I’m sorry that I embarrassed you in front of all your friends when I called you an idiot,” is a lot more likely to be accepted than, “I’m sorry for what happened back there.” Right?
Maybe the most common bad apology is “I’m sorry if.” You hear this all the time in pseudo-apologies like, “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt when I made other plans for the night I said I would come see your debut at Carnegie Hall.” It’s not hard to see that “I’m sorry if” is just a way for the speaker to suggest that he or she is not the person really at fault. “I’m sorry if” implies that the real blame lies in the way the other person failed to perceive the situation correctly. It’s a way of saying, “I wouldn’t have to apologize if you weren’t so easily offended.” Again, not a real apology.
I would venture to say that we have all, at one time or another, offered a bad apology like one of these. We even do it when we know how much it hurts to receive such a non-apology. Why do we do it, then? We make bad apologies because making good apologies is really very hard. How hard?
The great Jewish medieval philosopher and legal scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon – who is better known to the world as Maimonides or, in Jewish circles, as the Rambam – wrote that the repentance of Yom Kippur is really a series of good apologies to the people we have hurt and making a good apology to God. He said that a good apology consists of four steps.
The first step, according to the Rambam, is to admit in clear words what you did wrong. He said that you have to confess your wrong verbally and ask for forgiveness. The second step, he said is to express remorse, to say that you recognize the damage you have done and your determination not to make the same mistake again. The third step of the Rambam is to make amends. You must commit to righting your wrongs and repairing the damage you have done. Finally, the Rambam says that repentance is not complete until you face the same situation again and make better choices. No apology can mean anything unless it means that you have changed because you recognize the wrong you have committed.
Putting the Rambam’s principles into practical rules for saying you’re sorry, we could say that a good apology needs to take responsibility for actions and acknowledge their hurt. It needs to express sincere remorse and provide reasonable assurance that it won’t happen again. It needs to offer to make up for the harm done.
For example, here is what Fred might have said to apologize to Alice: “The way that I spoke to you in the restaurant was hurtful and inconsiderate of your feelings. I should have listened to you in a way that made you feel appreciated and heard instead of dominating the conversation with trivial stories about myself. I should have treated you with respect and courtesy instead of insulting you, especially after you let me know how hurt you felt. I understand that my behavior made you feel belittled and ignored. I feel terrible that my behavior hurt you so much that you felt that you needed to leave so quickly. I promise that I will do whatever I can to make sure that I never treat anyone like that again. Please let me know what I can do to make this up to you.” That is what an apology should sound like.
Is making an apology like that easy? Of course not. Even after working hard at apologizing, people find it difficult to make this kind of good apology every time that an apology is called for. But making good apologies has tremendous benefits for us – benefits that should motivate us to try to make more good apologies.
Good apologies can transform our relationships. We often shy away from making a real apology because we think that an apology will make us look weak, unkind or imperfect. Somehow, we fail to realize that apologizing does just the opposite. When we sincerely apologize for something we’ve done wrong, it actually causes others to see us as self-confident, compassionate and humble – all good qualities.
There is an example of a good apology that you may know about in recent Rhode Island history. The actor James Woods had a brother named Michael who died in 2006 at age 49 when he had a heart attack in the emergency department at Kent Hospital in Warwick. He had gone to the hospital complaining of a sore throat and vomiting. It later came out that Michael Woods’ death was directly related to the fact that a medical order that was written by the attending physician was not carried out by the Emergency Department staff.
James Woods sued the hospital and the case dragged out in lawyers’ offices for years. When the case eventually went to trial, the CEO of the hospital, Sandra Coletta, went to the courthouse and found out that the hospital had made mistakes in treating Michael Woods. She asked for a meeting with the famous actor who was suing her hospital, and in that meeting she listened to the pain that James Woods, the person, had endured in the loss of his younger brother. Coletta then did something unexpected. She apologized. She admitted the mistakes that the hospital had made and she said she was sorry.
She also did more than that. Coletta offered to establish an institute at the hospital, named in honor of Michael Woods, to prevent such errors from happening again in the future. She acknowledged that the words “I’m sorry” are meaningless if they are not joined to action to repair what has been broken. They are pointless if they are not backed up with real change.
That was the breakthrough that was needed to settle the case. As a result, the hospital was able to get past a lawsuit that was a public relations disaster for them. James Woods and his family got the acknowledgement they needed that the hospital recognized their fault in his brother’s death. Because of the work of the Michael J. Woods Institute to Improve Medical Care, our community now has a hospital with shorter waiting times in the emergency department, which, in turn, can help save lives.
Of course, most apologies do not attract the media attention that this apology did. Most apologies do not result in better medical care for thousands of people and the prevention of unnecessary deaths. But apologies do bring together people who have been kept apart by resentment and bitterness. Apologies do help to heal damaged families and save them from estrangement and brokenness. Apologies do help people transform old animosities and inner turmoil into forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Good apologies can do all of that. They can transform us into better and happier people.
On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask you to do something real. I want you to think about the apologies that are missing from your life. You can consider the apologies that are owed to you, if you like, but, chances are, you can’t do too much to make those happen. You can, however, control the apologies that you owe to others.
I want to ask you to notice what has kept you from offering those apologies. Maybe you think that too much time has gone by. In reality, it is never too late to say, “I’m sorry.” Maybe you think that apologizing would just stir up old pain. The truth is, you will never know what pain another person is still feeling and will continue to feel until you apologize. Maybe you think that you shouldn’t apologize because the other person won’t apologize back. Of course, if you both feel that way, you could both be suffering as you wait for the other person to apologize first.
Don’t do that to yourself. Take the risk. Find the strength. Heal the wounds. Say, “I’m sorry.” And make your apology, not just a good apology, but a great one.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be written and sealed for a good year.