#paganvalues The Apology, and its receipt

This entry is part 21 of 27 in the series Pagan Values Month

There’s always a fuzzy point where my own values come in: they are not necessarily Pagan values, but they are values that belong to my person. I am a Pagan, and I express those values. Just as politics and religion may not separate so easily, neither do my personal and religious values – after all, just as some people can’t distinguish between their political and religious inclinations, others can’t quite distinguish between the religious and the personal. I am Pagan. Are these my values because I am Pagan? Perhaps. Am I Pagan because of my values? That may well be the stronger argument. I did not change my emotional beliefs very much at all upon my religious conversion; what changed was my understanding of history and science. (Evolution was never a point of contention when I was Christian, and most certainly not now.)  After 16 + years practicing Wicca, the line has gotten so fuzzy it might classify as a new form of penicillin.

One of those values in action that may be personal and may in some way be Pagan revolves around the apology. Here, I need to acknowledge the source: a friend recently posted to her Livejournal about apologizing to someone she felt she treated poorly. (I have no idea whether or not she treated him as she felt she did.) I said that I thought it was a classy thing to do – and I wondered why so many people, even when they do know they did something that caused real harm, refuse to apologize. I have been genuinely mystified by this for years.

Another poster did explain it to me. To paraphrase, “Whenever you apologize, you risk hearing a litany from the other person of how much you suck.”

This was illuminating for me.  Especially since it seems that we are rapidly losing protocol for delivering apologies, and if what this person said is true (and I think it probably is) the protocol for accepting apologies may well have disappeared completely.

I’ve given far more apologies in life than I’ve received. While I’m not particularly quick to anger, when I do anger, it’s strong, and I have had to introduce myself to new ways of managing that anger. I am also a notorious grudge holder, but I want to point something out: I only hold grudges for the things I don’t receive apologies for. If I’m expected to drop a grudge without the other person apologizing, I do see the request as marginalizing my person (not just my feelings.) Especially since people around me throughout my life have been quick to demand apologies from me over things that I do not believe merit apologies: if I insult or injure you, I apologize the minute I recognize it. This usually doesn’t take me too long. If, however, I offend your ideas about the world, I think you need to get the fuck over yourself. I’ve managed to listen to the rambles of outright misogynists without losing my temper or demanding an apology for the misogyny itself – but when the moron tried to grab my breasts, then yes I most certainly was owed an apology.

One of my great frustrations with the Western culture’s current incarnation is how very “feelings first” it is:  first, there’s an implicit demand that everyone become a mind-reader, and edit behaviors and comments so as not to challenge the internal emotional dialogue of the more emotional around us. The only way to function is to give yourself over in absolute passivity, so as not to challenge any feelings a person might be having – and of course, this tacit request to give over personhood completely is a pressure put on women, mostly by women, but also by certain types of men. Thanks, but the whole silencing women in particular maneuver has had its time. I’m going to speak up. If I’m cruel to you, I own it. If I object to your ideas while taking absolutely nothing away from you, it’s entirely your problem. Most of the time, I don’t object to ideas I disagree with, I simply don’t practice or engage them. If you get offended by that approach, it comes down to you wanting to control another person – and that’s a very negative thing.

To put it more simply, a whole lot of people demand apologies for actions and statements made that they knew, if they separated “facts versus feelings”  at the time they could see were never intended to hurt them. Often enough, when asked to demonstrate harm, the person can’t produce any beyond a contradicted opinion.

Self-expression is good, and the move towards self-expression – and freeing it from the bonds of gender assignment -are good. But even the best things come with a shadow side, and the shadow is the expectation of mind reading, and an avenue for certain people to bully while using the bullying tactic – “my feelings are hurt/my opinion if offended!” – to disguise themselves as victims. This is not a screed on people who disagree with me; my contention is with people who use hypersensitivity to demand everyone comply with them, and demand that everyone tiptoe around their moods. I realize that the increasing number of people suffering clinical depression and bipolar disorder do factor into this; I’ve known enough to know that a good number work really hard to separate what the chemicals in their brain say to what’s really going on. It’s those that refuse treatment, or think that their feelings should dictate their behavior and the behavior of those around them, that I have a problem with. You can have a mental health disorder and be responsible with it – I want to give everyone human dignity, but in turn, I must be allowed my dignity, too. I certainly have enough undignified things happen to me without the element of social politics.

So when it comes to issuing an apology, you must set aside your ego – the part people hate to do the most – and focus on how the other person feels, and evaluate clearly any genuine harm that person has experienced.  In the US, most harm falls into abstract categories: did you call the person names in anger? (Never OK. Depends on the relationship if done in jest.)  Did you break any property, render it unusable or do something that resulted in need for a Hazmat suit? Did you raise your voice to the person, assume an intimidating body posture, or make any physically possible threats that that person had reason based in past experience to believe you might carry out? Were the words kill, murder, strangle, stab or shoot used with any physical demonstration to go with it? (This last one is hairy, just because it’s usually said as a joke, but if you don’t take exactly the right one seriously, bad things happen.) Did you actually order an age-of-majority adult to do something outside of an employment or consent-based context? (The laws of hospitality have some caveats in this area.) If you’re still focused on yourself when you know you are the one who has in some way offended the other person, there’s a problem. If you’re repeating the anger scripts of “This is the kind of person I am and they should just accept it,”  “That’s just my personality,” (Personality is how you process emotions and data internally; only a small and culturally learned portion really is about how you interact with others. You can still be an extrovert even after you apologize. ) “Nobody does this to me,” or “They’re just being too sensitive!” you need to take a big stop.

Yes, sometimes people are sensitive, and use faux sensitivity to control the people around them. These people aren’t terribly rare, but are common enough that you should be able to recognize them because they will definitely have created drama with other people before they started on you.

But if your first thoughts are not about preserving friendship, but are instead about ways the other people are trying to control you or how you want to demand they act, you must do a facts versus feelings check. Unless someone has actually said something that is truly telling you who to be or what to think, it’s on you. Especially if things you may think are just about you – like getting hammered and pawing at a woman, or screaming at a fellow bar patron – are really about you taking from someone else.

When you do choose to give an apology, a few things must be clear: first, any apology followed by the word “but” is not an apology. You can justify your actions all you want in your diary. The person you’re apologizing to just needs to know that you recognize you did do harm. Amends are not always possible. You can send stained clothes to the dry cleaner, but you can’t unbreak a Ming vase. You also can’t undo molesting a person, nor can you bring anyone or anyone’s pet back to life. When you unleash a torrent of abuse on a person, insisting later that you’re sorry but “that’s how you really feel,” is actually an assertion that you have a right to verbally abuse that person and is in no way an apology.

A correctly given apology should be short, and easy to accept.

“I’m sorry (sad) that something I did/said caused you  harm.” “I apologize for causing loss of property, loss of relationship, and/or loss of safety/value as a person.”   If people have been living with your mood swings, you most certainly are affecting someone’s sense of safety and value.

This goes into softer areas – acknowledging a loss of trust, especially when you skip out on social contracts such as fulfilling promises, or divulge information that causes immediate harm, fall into more grey areas. There may be extenuating circumstances to revealing secrets; you may still intend to keep a promise but can’t right now. As a Pagan, I live in a non-absolutist universe, and reason to do “wrongs” for a greater good crop up from time to time. Promises, it must be noted, are a huge deal across Pagan traditions and that very much merits its own entry.

Still, being quick to apologize and slow to anger (or in my case, perhaps less insistent upon anger once it appears) can probably help relationships and unplug drama long-term.

But then there comes in the second part: accepting an apology.

I’ve heard a few people refuse to accept an apology. The reasons given for not accepting were never about being unconvinced about the other person changing his/her behavior. It seems that the only reason to refuse an apology is when you have strong reason to believe the person’s behavior won’t change. All other refusals are nothing more than an act of “I’m dominant, and you’re subservient.” In other words, refusing a sincerely given apology is nothing more and nothing less than being a complete ass. If you are trying to “show the kind of person you are” or you are “sticking to your principles,” you’re playacting. People of real principle don’t project the demands of their ideals onto other people, because that work starts from within.

An apology is not:

  • It is not a request for a renewal of relationship. Both the apologizer and receiver need to understand this.
  • It is not making amends; it is simply acknowledgement of the transgerssion.
  • It is not a contract.
  • It is not an admission of or invitation to power over the person apologizing.

An apology is:

  • An acknowledgement of wrong/harm done.
  • A tacit promise to not repeat the behavior that caused the harm.

That is all an apology is; if the harm is repeated, then the relationship must end. (People in violent relationships are better off not waiting around for an apology at all.)

Receiving an apology also calls upon you to set your ego aside. Feelings generally express themselves naturally; it’s the ego, which is not emotion but is part of our inner Evil Chimp that causes us to spill more and make bigger scenes when an apology can and should close the drama. Our dramas belong in our creative endeavors, not in our relationships. If you end up making a bigger scene, you are the problem in that relationship, and very probably it’s because you’re directing drama to people instead of finding ways to engage that passion in something where you’re just being.

The script for accepting an apology is simple: “I accept your apology.” You may wish to express that you understand the reasoning behind the mistreatment – it’s important that you make it clear you do recognize the person/humanity of the person apologizing to you. The litany of “you suck” is not an act of accepting an apology; it’s a refusal, even if you say the words “I accept.”

If this is followed by “What now?” you can then discuss boundaries for the future.  You may not have a future relationship with that person, and if any anger/bitterness results from that, you will know you made the right decision.

Again, there are few absolutes here. Jokes are misunderstood as threats, promises are broken unintentionally, and the universe may have destined that cup of coffee for your silk blouse. Apologizing is a sign of strength, not the sign of weakness it is advertised to be. To apologize is to state that you are aware of your effect on others, and you have and desire the ability to alter your effect on the universe for greater change. Accepting an apology is assuming an almost ritual role in supporting the person’s ability to change him/herself from within; to refuse to accept an apology means a refusal to change – and that’s pretty much how species die out.



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