Apology by Fr. John Horan

The American athlete Marion Jones was reckoned, by many sports people, to be the best female athlete the world had ever seen. That was until 8 October 2007 when the evidence against her became irrefutable and she publicly confessed that she had been taking performance enhancing drugs. Instantly, her ironic status as celebrity athlete turned to dust. She was stripped of medals, titles and prize money.

Golden girl

In the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Jones had won an incredible five medals, three of which were gold. She was the ‘golden girl’ of women’s athletics and had made large sums of money from race appearances and product endorsements. But she had cheated on the world’s greatest athletic stage and when she was found out she appeared on our TV screens and newspapers tearfully apologising to the world.

The reaction in the media to her apology was very interesting. Jones had become a celebrity, put on a pedestal by them as a result of her track record. Now when it became clear that her achievements were tainted, her status was destroyed.

The wording of her apology was always going to be difficult and so it turned out to be. Her admission of guild contradicted years of very convincing public denials. Her apology was analysed, criticised and described as hackneyed, highly emotive and lacking believability. It allegedly contained undertones of self-preservation and Jones was accused of not forthrightly and unambiguously condemning the use of performance enhancing drugs. She had broken the trust of millions and further tarnished the world of athletics. Her expression of apology was deemed to have failed to assuage the anger and disappointment of many who had seen her as a legend.

Nature of Apology

Marion Jones story is not unique. I use it simply, as an example, to highlight the nature of apology.

Apologies are not just about a form of words but also about the underlying attitudes of truth, honesty and integrity. Over the past couple of decades, in our own country, we have seen apology after apology offered by various institutions, state, church, religious congregations, banks, hospitals, etc for wrongs committed and mistakes made. Many of these apologies were seen as inadequate by those who had been hurt.
This because, victims saw or intuited traces of self-preservation in the apology rather than unconditional regret and willingness to right the wrong done. They, therefore, questioned the sincerity and authenticity of the apology. People who have been deeply hurt scan the words of an apology with deep sensitivity. An insincere or half-hearted apology compounds the hurt and increases anger.

Necessary

Apologies can be our best friends. They are also necessary friends, simply because, as human beings, we make mistakes which can fester and poison relationships. Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes and occur in all areas of life. Our behaviour affects others. Sometimes the need to restore harmony and renew relationships is part of our journey as mature and responsible human beings.

We have all experienced times in our lives when we felt we were owed an apology and at other times when we felt the need to give an apology and be forgiven for the hurt we had caused. When we have been hurt by somebody and an apology is not forthcoming we can carry a smouldering resentment towards that person deep within us. Indeed, we can carry anger, resentment and hurt from our childhood because our parents or teachers or significant others did not say sorry for small or large injustices done to us.

Love Means

When we are deeply offended something inside of us calls for justice. This reality is borne out everyday in our courts of law. We constantly see people who cannot move on with their lives, until justice is seen to be done. While obtaining justice does obviously bring a necessary satisfaction to those offended, it does not by and large restore relationships. The very possibility of reconciliation depends on an apology. It takes the experience of an apology to release in us the forgiveness that leads to genuine reconciliation.

If the use of apology was the norm in our relationships, very few if any barriers would be erected between us. However, we know too well that for many, apologising is regarded as a weakness rather than a strength. For example, back in the 70s there was a catchy little phrase on a cute poster which said: ”Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The phrase caught on, but as a serious reflection on how we interact in our lives, we see it as, essentially, a selfish statement. As Ken Blanchard says, it would be better to rephrase the sentence to read: “Love is being able to say sorry and mean it.”

‘Cover Ups’

Perhaps we see apologising as a weakness because of our need to always look good and be right. But if I’m right all the time and I never acknowledge my mistakes then that usually means the other is always wrong.

Frequently we read and hear about ‘cover ups’ in organisations of all sorts. If at the beginning people had the strength and the wisdom to apologise for the initial wrong, honesty and sincerity would have replaced the cover-up. Then, the wrong done to those who had been hurt or harmed could, as far as humanly possible, be made right at the very beginning. ‘Cover-ups’, as we have seen, meant people waited for years for an apology and wrongs to be righted.

It has been wisely said that: “Any problem you have spins out of control the minute you stop dealing with the truth.” Once we start side-stepping the truth we are into rationalisation and denial. Both of these together are a deadly mix that has the potential to lead us down destructive pathways. We refuse to apologise because we rationalise it is not our fault. Then we are in denial and we cannot admit we are wrong.

Gracious Gift

If we are serious about our efforts to apologise and achieve reconciliation then some basic attitudes are needed. Instinctively, I think, we know these.

I must take full responsibility for my actions and fully acknowledge the hurt I have caused the other. I must actually feel I made a mistake so that I can somehow let the other know I am really sorry. I have to be specific and tell the person what exactly I am apologising for. I have to tell the other how I feel about what I did, for example whether I’m embarrassed or sad about what I did and finally that I feel deeply enough to change my behaviour.

“Apology is a lovely perfume; it can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.”