The Art of the Apology

Dear reader, as a proud citizen of Canadia-Land – the True North Strong and Free(zing) – I am of course well aware of the near-ubiquitous cliché surrounding our penchant for seeking absolution.

In other words, our tendency to apologize.

You may believe that it is my extensive training as a Canuck that has prompted this particular scribbling on the art of the apology.

If so, then you’ve stepped right into my trap Mr. Bond, because that is NOT my reason for penning this missive!

No, this essay came to me fully formed (as they so often do) while I was in the shower. I had been ruminating on a specific type of behaviour I’ve noticed of late among my fellow human-flavoured humans.

Note: What follows is purely a personal opinion. You may agree or disagree as you see fit, but the accompanying thoughts are, I believe, well considered and I hope, thoughtful. You be the judge.

Let me paint you a scene. A human – we’ll call him “Dave” because “Cardinal Richelieu” is already taken – says or does something that upsets his partner-human, whom we’ll call “Not-Dave.” Dave becomes aware of his partner’s consternation and immediately attempts to show his contrition by saying, “I’m sorry.”

Nothing unusual in that right? A simple interaction where one human inadvertently causes injury to another, and then apologizes.

But what if I told you that Dave did NOT really apologize?

“Now hang on,” I hear you sputter in that endearingly italicized way you have, “What’s ‘I’m sorry’ then if not an apology?”

Steady on dear reader, all will be revealed in the fullness of time.

You see, “I’m sorry” is not an apology. It’s the BEGINNING of an apology to be sure – a preface if you will – but it’s no more a complete apology than “Will you?” is a marriage proposal. Allow me to explain.

True contrition – the desire to make amends for wrongs committed – requires more than a two-word knee-jerk response.

We’re all familiar with the stereotypical scenario of the guy who realizes his girlfriend is upset with him, and then clumsily apologizes without ever really understanding what it is he’s apologizing for. It’s such a commonplace trope in fiction that it’s almost taken on a life of its own.

However, it isn’t only within the realm of fiction that this habit can be found. I see it all the time among my fellow humans. Indeed, I’m embarrassed to admit that in the past, I’ve fallen prey to it as well.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the primary issue is one of sincerity. If you apologize for something without understanding what you’re apologizing for, can that be labelled as anything other than disingenuous? It becomes a meaningless gesture, a habitual stimulus-response that does nothing to assuage your partner’s injured feelings, much less offer any hope of rebuilding trust.

Every interaction between humans – both positive AND negative – presents opportunities to communicate and learn from one another. When we reduce those interactions to basic stimulus-responses, we forfeit those same opportunities. We learn nothing about each other, and our connection – that beautiful, inexplicable, one-part-chemistry / two-parts-witchcraft linkage we call relationships – weakens.

I have always stood by the idea that one should NEVER apologize unless one knows exactly what they are apologizing for. To do any less is, as already stated, disingenuous and insulting.

Allow me, dear reader, to offer my own humble opinion on how best to handle the situation I outlined at the beginning of this missive:

In our original scenario, “Dave” had inadvertently said or done something that upset his partner, “Not-Dave.” Dave realizes what’s happening and gives it some honest consideration. After a short time, he sits down with his partner and offers the following:

“Look, I realize that you’re upset about [REASON], and I want you to know I’m truly sorry. You have every right to be upset. I [ACTED/SPOKE] without thinking. I’ve thought about this and I want you to know that I understand why it upset you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s likely that [WHY HE BELIEVES HIS PARTNER IS UPSET].”

At this point, Dave sits quietly and listens to his partner’s response, and his/her feelings on the matter. He doesn’t interrupt, he simply LISTENS.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this be used as a script (talk about disingenuous!), nor am I saying that communicating in this way will lead to instant forgiveness. Depending on the severity of the matter, that may be a long time coming – if at all. What I am saying is that when we approach interactions in a thoughtful and respectful way, we do more than just smooth ruffled feathers or avoid an argument.

We begin to truly LEARN about the people in our lives, their feelings, motivations and possibly even their innermost anxieties and fears. That information allows us to be more thoughtful, and builds stronger relationships as a result.

One final note: This particular process is not restricted to romantic relationships, nor is it confined to the Male->Female dynamic. It can be adapted to any kind of relationship, from friends to coworkers, and in any combination of gender identities.

The art of the apology is far more than just a social convention for acknowledging culpability. It’s a vital tool for navigating the strange and beautiful path that connects us all.

We abandon it at our peril.


Rage Against the Dying of the Light

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

It all started with a nosebleed…

Such an innocent thing the humble nosebleed. Nearly every child has had one at some point, most often from an inopportune collision with the environment they’re so anxious to explore.

Like most children, I’ve had my experiences with the ejecta of life-fluids from the proboscis, but, aside from a car accident that I’d rather not discuss, rarely since the gaining on man’s estate.

So it was all the more shocking when, on the way to the grocery store one Sunday, I suddenly began bleeding rather profusely from one side of my nose onto the sidewalk. When I say “rather profusely,” I am in no way exaggerating the point. Without resorting to graphic imagery, my nosebleed was not the usual “slow drip” one is accustomed to. This was a steady flow, as if a major vein or artery had been severed, emptying its contents onto the pavement below.

My initial consternation quickly changed to alarm as I realized that this unexpected evacuation was not slowing down. Despite my best efforts, panic began to creep in as I tried to determine what to do. I couldn’t enter the store to get help, as I was already covered in blood and any movement on my part would simply make a mess everywhere, a situation as unpleasant as it was unsanitary. I realized I was going to have to call 911 – something of an embarrassment as I still considered this a “nosebleed.”

Finally I was able to swallow my growing panic and dig out my cel phone – how ironic that I had only just recently purchased a phone after years of believing I didn’t need one – and called 911. The kind and patient gentleman on the phone helped keep me calm while I waited for the ambulance to come. He appreciated my attempts at humour to keep the fear at bay – not just the fear of bleeding to death on a Sobey’s parking lot, but also a much deeper, unspoken fear – a deep, abject terror of hospitals.

Interestingly, almost the moment I stepped into the ambulance, the bleeding finally stopped. Arriving at the Emergency room of the hospital (ironically just a 10-minute walk from my house) was a study in using humour to counteract fear. The jokes came fast and furious as I was poked, prodded and tested for everything from diabetes to an addiction to love.

It’s a truly terrifying thing not to know if you’ll be able to go home or not, and the wait to find out can be interminable. Your mind begins to race through any number of bizarre scenarios:

“How will I get things from home for my stay?”
“Is there anyone I can call?”
“What about my clients?”
“Will they understand that I may have to delay work?”
“Does staying in hospital for a long time cost money?”
“How much?”
“And how will I pay for it if I can’t work?”
“What if I’m dying?”
“What if I die here, and no one knows?”

These sound like silly questions, but they are all very real, and they ramp up fear to levels beyond those assuaged by humour. Luckily for me, I’ve gotten very good at hiding fear and pain from my face, so that people often think everything is going perfectly well, while inside I’m falling apart. “Fake it til you make it,” I suppose.

Fast forward to today, five days after my initial “bleed-out” on the parking lot of a local supermarket, and I’ve been seen by nearly every department of the hospital except Obstetrics and Psychiatry.

The staff here at the hospital have gone above and beyond, from sitting quietly as I had a complete emotional breakdown at 4 in the morning to offering a patient (pardon the pun) smile and a helping hand whenever it’s been needed, usually before it was ever asked for (I rarely ask).

Staying in hospital is a lonely experience, especially for someone like myself, and simple things like access to the internet goes a LONG way to countering that loneliness.

As of this writing, they’ve determined that I have an issue with my heart, elevated blood pressure (it was a mind boggling 200 over something or other when first admitted) and some kidney abnormalities. Despite the fact that I “don’t fit into a neat box” interms of easy treatment, the medical staff are confident that all these issues can and will be treated – it will just take a little time.

I admit, I’m still scared, it’s hard not to be. Hospitals have been the location (if not necessarily the cause) of much of the loss I’ve experienced in my life, so a little trepidation is understandable.

I’ll also admit that I occasionally wake up at night in tears from that very fear and the memories it brings with it. (Note: For anyone reading this who may scoff and say, “That’s not very manly,” two things: 1. Fuck you, and 2. What makes you think I’m a man?)

The bottom line of course, is that I will get through this as I’ve gotten through everything else – with a great deal of help and with some small degree of tenacity on my part. Depression and fear would take me down the path of least resistance, see these challenges as a sign that I shouldn’t be here, that I have used up (or worse, wasted) my runs around the sun.

Strong though those emotions may be, and as tempting as the end result may seem, I’m just not willing to, as Thomas put it, “go gentle into that good night.”

The truth is, I’m not ready to go yet, not while there’s the tiniest chance I can do something of some value in this life. I’m in no way religious, but I do believe that there’s someone waiting for me when the time comes, but that time is not yet here.

As Russell Crowe says in the movie Gladiator when asked if he believes he will see his dead wife again:

“Yes I will… but not yet.”