As we scroll through the latest apologies in our news feeds (I’m sorry if anyone was offended; it was the culture back then; I’m mostly sorry but not for THAT one), it’s easy to see what apologies are not. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what apologies are, and why we make them.
A few months ago, I flew from New York to Wisconsin to say I’m sorry to my ex-wife. We had been together for 14 years when she was told she had breast cancer in 2006. I was beside her through her surgery and chemo appointments, but I was terrified. At the end of her chemo, when she was still very sick, I ran. I began a torrid affair with my therapist, whom I eventually married.
My ex-wife healed from the cancer, and went on to marry again and have two children, but my violation was a big one. I’d said I was sorry before, but the words didn’t reach the bottom of an experience as deep as abandonment.
If words aren’t enough, what’s left? In a recent phone conversation, she told me that she never really had the chance to sit me down and tell me how the pain I caused her felt. A key part of apology, perhaps, is really listening to the victim’s experience, taking that in deeply. So I booked a ticket to Wisconsin. The plan was to listen and then, together, try to create a process of repair. We had no idea what this might look like.
The Jewish process of apology, teshuvah,requires that the one seeking forgiveness first undergo a personal inventory, or reckoning. In Hebrew, “teshuvah” means “return.” I thought that it might give us a kind of frame for our process together.
What I found was that there wasn’t much time. My ex seemed happy to see me, but her 2-year-old had to go down for a nap. Her 4-year-old wanted to play with magnet tiles. Then it was time for the library and swim lessons and to put the shoes on, take the shoes off, put the shoes on again — oops, we left Lammy at the library — and hurry up and find a snack. It wasn’t until two days into the trip that we really sat down and talked. This, though, was part of the healing. While I had envisioned a major summit meeting, what came through was life — her full and happy life, and she was letting me be a part of it. Returning.
“Thank you,” I said, “for letting me come here.”
I explained that my purpose was to create a space for her to say whatever she needed to say to me so that I could hear her and apologize without defense or excuse. I offered this not because it was dictated by teshuvah or any of the other apology styles and rituals I had read about in preparation, but rather because, in my own experiences of being aggrieved, it’s what I most wanted.
I wanted it from the therapist, who had ended things in a violent way; I wanted it from my parents, and from others who had wronged me and never said sorry. Maybe, I thought, this was a universal longing — to be listened to, rather than apologized at.
She was generous, saying it meant a lot to her that I had come. I was expecting anger, but what she felt, she said, was a deep sadness. She, too, had known that our relationship, in those 14 years, had long been too smothering. But she was sad, almost unthinkably sad, that I left her in the way that I did.
Causing someone sadness is different from causing pain or fear. It’s duller, deeper, and it lasts longer. I sat with those words and felt tremendous remorse. I remembered a photo I had seen of her sitting by a window, some months after I had left her. She was still mostly bald from the chemo, and she stared hard into the camera, her mouth tugged back into a kind of grimace, as if she were swallowing the world. I did that to her, I knew, and more.
The instinct, of course, is to fill the space with language, but I wanted to take the time to bear the full weight of her telling.
“I’m so sorry,” I finally said, “for causing you such great sadness.”
We talked about ways to make amends; I had thought of everything from helping out with her kids to volunteering in cancer wards. But no, she said, the amends were here, in this process.
We talked then about teshuvah, my reckoning for why I had done what I did. The truth is, my ex and I had, in effect, grown up together, having started dating when I was 20. In a way, she had parented me. I had grown up with a very sick mother; she gave me the chance to feel loved and protected. But when that love was threatened by her illness, I could only think of rescue, much as I had when I was a child. My therapist offered that to me, and was the one person who, seemingly, would never get sick on me, never die. When I finally left the therapist, I learned what I should have known all along: that I was an adult, capable of standing on my own two feet and responsible for my own decisions.
“I forgive you,” she said.
My apology process was a lucky one. Not everyone is so magnanimous. But I wondered if our journey could serve as a model.
Our culture is good at promises — our leaders take oaths, we say “I do” — and we’re good at applying punishments when those promises are broken. But where is the space for real remorse and introspection?
We live in a Christian nation (resist all you want, but three-quarters of us identify as Christian) and I wonder whether that foists a redemption frame on our apologies. We look to be absolved, forgiven, immediately, the way we look to God. But people are not gods, and I wonder, in this era of facile press-release apologies, whether we need to slow things down.
Of course, apologizing for committing a crime is different from apologizing for breaking someone’s heart. But there is some crossover. Perhaps, for example, perpetrators could engage in a more sophisticated manner with the public rather than always slinking off to their private lives to, supposedly, think about their actions. With the #MeToo movement, we’ve rightly made private transgressions and abuses public, in all their painful detail. But after those revelations, we need more than one quick “sorry.” Imagine a dialogue where we witness real reflection and change.
Because the truth is, an apology is rarely a private exchange between two people: When you harm one person, you harm many. When I abandoned my wife, I also abandoned my community of friends, who were furious with me. I hurt others, who heard her story and were scared that their lovers could also leave them in a time of need.
Could this ripple effect work the other direction, too? An intimate relationship can scatter scars. I hope that an intimate apology, made public, can heal them.
Cris Beam is the author of “I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy.”