The Power of Apology
Something about the way we are taught to live makes us terribly unhappy: it's the notion that whatever we do should be "perfect". Although we all know in our hearts that we're highly imperfect, we also learn early on to settle for second-best; a hotly-defended pretense of perfection. We learn as children to deny our mistakes, to hide them, to blame others, to distract, to lie. The behaviors that outrage us now, the lies of politicians, the greed of corporations, are spectacular examples of what every 2-year-old believes: if I close my eyes, you can't see me.
Of course, most of us know when we’ve done wrong. The outcome of not admitting our mistakes is stress in the body and spirit. Lie detectors don't find the lie, but the body's terror-stricken response to the lie. When we pretend perfection, we cause ourselves physical and metaphysical harm. When we make it normal to avoid apology and restitution, we institutionalize that harm: it appears everywhere, causing widespread damage.
But there is a remedy, as simple as it is seemingly difficult. The great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has lectured and written about what he calls mantras for loving. These simple phrases can restore harmony between people, can bring peace into families and communities. I'm going to share these ideas with you because knowing them, using them, teaching them to your family, will simply make your life happier.
"I made a mistake."
"How can I make it right?"
See how simple they are? A child could say them! So, why is it so hard for us to admit our mistakes, apologize and make amends?
It's not, really. It's just that we've been taught that admitting mistakes is a weakness. And unfortunately, some people believe it's easier to go on making mistakes than it is to do things right. But we also instinctively know that the people we run to when we're in trouble are the ones so strong that they take responsibility for their actions, especially when they've done something wrong. Whatever the current culture celebrates or denigrates, we know integrity in our very souls, and when we find it, we honor it.
When people are dying, they don’t regret not having worked hard enough or not being richer. They regret not having loved others well enough. And love isn't just a feeling: it's a way of behaving. Thich Nhat Hanh (his students call him Thay), says that if your love makes someone cry, makes you cry, it's not true love. True love seeks to make happiness. It takes action.
Thay teaches that true apology and making amends are absolutely vital to loving others. To love someone, you have to be able to trust that they will do what's right. That they'll show up for you; they will be fair. That when they screw up, they'll say so and try to fix it. And crucially, we have to be able to trust ourselves to do that, too.
So Thay has taught what he calls "mantras"; simple phrases to help us communicate with those we care for. The mantras are also very powerful when you use them with yourself. With denial and deception come guilt and self-loathing. Making space for the truth detoxifies and builds real strength. You can have the following conversation with yourself or with someone else. Take a deep breath and smile: you are making love happen.
I know I screwed up when I made that decision and it's caused pain. I was afraid, so I chose what looked like an easy option over the right one. I am sorry.
Well, yes, it did make a mess, but it's done now and I see you did the best you could at the time. In hindsight, you could have done better--but who has hindsight! So I'm letting you off the hook. I forgive you.
What can I do to make amends?
Don't let your fear cause you to make this mistake again. Sit with the fear, get help from your friends, don't budge until you know you can make the right choice next time.
Ok, I promise, I will be more careful --and less reactionary.
It won't be easy...
I know! But it'll be worth it.
When you're not used to apologizing, it's hard! But like any exercise, it gets easier with practice. And the rewards are huge: has anyone ever hurt you, apologized and then tried to make it up to you? Didn't that feel good, to have your hurt acknowledged, to know the other person wanted to make it right with you?
Isn't a real apology the most basic form of human justice? can you imagine what life might feel like if the people who've wronged you engaged these mantras with loving, corrective intent? Can you see how these simple acts are powerful tools for peace?
There's a reason most religions have some aspect of confession. It's not to humiliate us, it's to free us. Breaking chains of the deception and delusion of perfection, we can be ourselves. We learn that people will love (trust) us more easily and that we can love them better when we're not hiding behind denial of our most basic human trait: the ability to really mess things up! The mantras let us access other traits both human and divine: our great capacity for making things right, and for forgiving ourselves and each other.
So, next time you break a soap dish-- or someone's heart--don't run away and hide. Don't point fingers or make excuses or lie. Apologize and try to make amends. Yes, you're taking a chance. Maybe you can't make amends, beyond saying you're sorry. Do what you can.
Maybe the other person isn't capable of forgiving (it may come much later than you'd hope). You may even be attacked for re-opening an old wound. It may not feel good, and it’s painful saying, "I was wrong". But it’s painful at a superficial level--the level of the fragile ego we build to try to protect the true self. Funnily enough, the ego is easily injured: the more we try to bolster it, the more it hurts, the weaker it becomes. Acting from the true self, from inside that wobbly scaffolding of the false self, is the only way to ease that egoic pain.
Your apology could be rejected. It doesn't matter. It still feels right, being as courageous as a person can be. Child or adult, man or woman, there is no one stronger than someone who can say these words and follow them up:
"I messed up. I'm so sorry I hurt you"
"What can I do to make it right?"
It's that simple. It's that hard.
You can do it.
Birch Sings of Summer
Oh you are uninhibited, you
A naughty flirt—yet totally honest, straight, rooted, dancing the airs of a cerulean sky
Open heartshaped cascades of leaf and bright sun-yellow shimmer
yourself shaking on the breeze
Upward-reaching, bronze, copper, silver layers,
vermeil folios, satin petticoats of bark
You’re a stripper, a flapper, a ruffled, brilliant bride
A barred owl, fluffed wings resting
Lower trunk naked, tawny, peeled by time, silk-smooth
If I could be anything, do anything
Let me trade my skin for yours
My blood for yours
My transience and wandering,
even the blissful epiphanies of the human dream would I give
For your steadfastness, your subtle motions and exhalations
The arias of air on fragrant wood,
Of shifting sparkling peridot lights
of late, late summer.
Sapiophile Seeks Know-It-All
The wise value heart over mind
Please submit CV and character reference
for your colleague, brother, uncle,
best ex-lover—the one you were too young to appreciate.
Must be tall in spirit, eternally curious,
fearless in Fear’s sticky clutches
fiercely gentle, questing for what matters
free of grandiosity, meeting shame with tenderness.
Well-traveled explorer of
eros and agape’s vast steppes
sets kiss on desire’s soft cheek and
pursues, swift and unrelenting,
deep passion-flowering friendship.
Bored by phones, cars, sports, pride
Even-keeled, above all, kind
Knows the generosity and grace of true apology
Would rather be happy than right
Finds life in dancing, drawing,
praising the waters, trees, stars, telling stories
offers incense to the shadow while turning to the light
Understands consolation (did I mention kindness?)
A baseline of easy laughter
A capacity for stillness
When there’s nothing to say, smiling
when touched, makes room for tears.
Where No Man
Oh, Spock, I had such hopes for our adventure
Lifting off with an ice chest, a stained glass window in the trunk
Our beautiful Madison, howling Siamese curses from his crate
Think of the worlds we could discover
Two great friends with a shared purpose
But liftoff had its traumas, the unexpected
Was it lack of room, of air
The juddering of engines
The cold of all that empty space
Sure, we pressed the mission
With steely determination
But groundlessness left us drifting
Finding an orbit shook us to pieces and broke our fragile bonds
Now a continent spreads between us
Oh, Spock, sometimes
I wish we’d just stayed home.
That's No Way to Win a Fight
Last night I dreamt of blood
Not dainty little drips from a cut finger
But gouts, great lumps of blood, like offal awaiting the chef.
Clots in the corners of a room
An evisceration, a meditation on guts
Why? Hard to say
But for the metaphors you used for love
Adoration as war, a hostage-taking
Love as a zero-sum game
Your passion, your surrender to me, though I asked for none
And then a take-no-prisoners rage, burning all the bridges
That led from me to you.
These are my mother’s instructions on loving
Plagiarized from the classics; and similar to yours
she adjured me to come back
with my shield or on it
To kill if I would be killed,
And in the worst of cases
To be bloody if I must,
but to remain always unbowed.
4 crows, companions eating corn
3 crows discussing the jasmine
2 crows laughing loudly in the redwood tree
1 crow flying to find her friends
I managed to avoid the issue of having a cell phone for more than 10 years. For a long time, people of the remote village where I lived had to drive five miles and park on the highway at the top of a hill in order to check their voicemail.
On returning to the World, I soon found that a cell phone was so much cheaper than a landline, I opted for a flip phone. I managed to go another two years without learning how to do more than answer it.
My avoidance of phones tracks back to my early years, when I was the shyest person on earth. I went for years without answering the family phone: it horrified me. I never got over the dread of picking up the phone, either to answer it, or, god forbid, to make a call myself. Even now, when I know and like the person on the other end, I put off calling. I can't explain it.
I'm not a Luddite: I embraced the internet as soon as it was viable and starting working online in 2000. I can do pretty much what I like with a computer, and even wrote a teensy bit of code back when WYSIWYG website builders were less advanced and knowing how to change the color of a background in html put you ahead of the game.
But I'm bored with technology, and have been for some time. It's a tremendous amount of time-eating work just keeping apps updated. Word, for example, was once easy to use and could do anything any reasonable person would want (except Mail Merge, which never did work right.) Now, Word is a freaking mess, with a zillion sub-menus and very little intuitive organization. They've ruined it, with all those stupid updated versions.
I love using computers, but I want to use the tools, not spend my whole life maintaining them. And I subscribe to the conspiracy theory that software companies are colluding to keep us online by making constant interaction with technology a must-have, not a nice-to-have.
So now a computer is also a phone. Crap! I don't want a smartphone because I will certainly leave it on a bus every single week. I don't want to carry around something I'm always worried about losing. I don't actually want the internet at my fingertips 24/7. I want to feel my life without distraction, without the chronic, unnecessary multitasking that accompanies technology. I don't want to hear my pants ring. Or yours either.
There are downsides. For me, the downside of eschewing the smartphone is that I don't have a decent camera. I might get a phone so I can take pictures that look like the things in them. I can't think of another downside, although nearly everyone I know has an opinion on that.
Given that I don't like phones, apps or calling, I'm fascinated with texting. I don't like texting either, btw, because my flip phone has wee little keys and because I can't figure out how to get the zero to work in numbers. I have to use the letter 'O'. Also, my close vision is lousy, so I can't really see what I'm texting, and I make alot of mistakes, which I have to go back, laboriously, and fix. Also, I am a wordy creature and the bullshit physical limitations of the fliphone reduce me to mute frustration. God, it's just a bore.
But today, I sent an unnecessary text to my housemate Paul. I was watching a purple finch, which flew away from the feeder to the fence when the greedy neighbor squirrel approached. The finch was clearly, volubly, scolding the squirrel, and the squirrel was clearly, demonstrably intimidated. He would clamber close to the feeder, but he kept watching the little bird, and he didn't attempt the feeder. He was taking the threat seriously. Perhaps he'd been pecked on the head before. After some minutes of the one-sided altercation, he edged discreetly away, and slipped up the fence to next door.
And I sent a text to Paul, much abbreviated, to tell the story of the feeder, which he keeps stocked for the birds and the squirrels, too.
When I did that, I had a sudden idea about texting. It both limits and creates intimacy.
Who among us hasn't texted instead of calling with unwelcome news? Or texted because we know we should be talking in person, but for whatever reason, can't bear the immediacy of the voice? It's ideal for noncommittal relationships, or for expressing a feeling that isn't strong enough to follow with action.
An example: I text you to invite you to coffee after I'm sitting at the cafe. I'm 99% sure you won't get the text in time to make it, but I feel I get some points for expressing a wish to have coffee with you, without actually having to do it. And you, assuming you DO get the text in plenty of time to dash to the cafe, are perfectly free to claim you didn't and say, "Oh, too bad! Well, maybe next time."
So texting allows us to pretend to things we don't really desire, while creating an illusory relational interchange--and that's kind of interesting.
But there's more. As in the case of my texting Paul and having a short, pleasant interchange about the struggle for dominance in our back yard, texting can allow you to reach out to someone you don't know very well in what can be a very intimate space--the sharing of a brief thought, a moment that strikes us as charming--or possibly important. In this way, it could potentially build connection between near-strangers. It doesn't have to, but it could.
Texting gives the individual the freedom to reach out, to connect or be absent when the other "calls". So it feeds our childish desire for control. The flipside is, if we get addicted to that feeling of being in control, we wind up giving up our control because of the felt need to constantly check the phone, to see what we may be controlling next.
It's like the question that goes, "Could God make a world so large he can't lift it?" For humans the answer is yes, of course. We constantly create things that we are then incapable of managing. Pollution is the perfect example. Technology is another. The very thing we initially tell ourselves (or each other) could free us, enslaves us.
But it isn't the thing that's to blame; it's us! Human beings go to extremes. We think more is better, faster is better. We're kinda dumb that way. The whole world is shouting at us to slow down, to think smarter rather than faster. But we're just children in the universe. We don't know how to stop ourselves from wanting the whole candy store, long after the stomachaches begin.
I have hope for us, though. The whole cell phone thing is just a long track from what human beings still need--a real connection. Enduring friendships, a safe place to speak and be heard. We are alienated, but spend billions a year staying available to each other. Why else would we do that, unless we are, however unsuccessfully, trying to fill a great need? A hunger to know and be known?
We've never been closer together or farther apart. I think we are inching our way to an understanding of what we need, as opposed to what we think we want. I like to think that.
The finch can shout at a squirrel and right now, several sparrows and a hefty blue jay are discussing their rights to access the feeder. The small back yard is filled with chatter and song.
As much as we can, we are making our songs, and singing them to each other. Our vocabulary is limited by our complicated technologies.
But we need the poetry of a 6-word text that means, "I saw this great thing in the world and want to share it with you." And there is a certain brief joy in the little thumbs-up emoji arriving seconds later, that means, "I like you, too."
Tonight at sitting meditation, at first I was so grateful to join a sudden and deep sense of space and peace; to find I wasn't being inundated with thoughts and plans and fears and fantasies. What a relief--and then the wish it could always be like that and then the instant reminder that nothing lasts and so on, but a great deal of space and a kind of quiet joy. Oh yeah, I think, this is why, one of the reasons, why, I'm here.
And quick on the heels of this wonderful approximation of an appreciation of emptiness, my physical self makes a speech...."Oh man, I showered so fast, I still have shampoo bubbles in my ears: the tickling is driving me crazy. I will not rub my ears, will not rub my ears, eventually, the tickling will stop, yes, it will, don't rub your ears...Gee, it's chilly in here today," "My back hurts", "I wonder if the AC is lower than usual--and how funny, because I'm usually stifling in groups where someone always demands a higher temperature because THEY'RE cold". I am SO hungry--why didn't I bring lunch with me to Warm Mineral Springs, gee, I bet that basil would be nice in a frittata."
And so forth, until I say to myself, enough, enough, put my mind back on track, remember how good it felt to just be, oh, there is that lovely space again, see everything is just fine--
and at that moment, I'm overcome with a shiver so immediate, so violent, rippling up my spine, actually shaking its way up my neck, chattering my teeth in a great big BRRRR!--- I nearly slide off my bench with the force of it. Like a sneeze that you don't see coming--and are completely powerless to contain.
And for some reason, this strikes me as funny, and I start to giggle, and I can't stop. But I don't want to make any noise, so I'm not laughing out loud, but oh, I am laughing inside, the silliness of it all so huge that it's got tears literally squirting from the sides of my eyes. I squeeze them shut as hard as I can and try, try to calm down, but every time I think about that shiver, so unexpected and the way it almost knocked me off the bench, I start to laugh all over again.
My stomach is trembling from the shaky breath of laughter that has nowhere to go, and the force of keeping it inside. I can't stop. Should I get up and leave? Impossible--before I get to the outside room where we drop our shoes, I'll be laughing hysterically, fully and out loud. Assuming I could even get up without becoming hopelessly entangled in my bench--ohgod I can see that happening, staggering around, falling over things, whooping like a nut for no discernable reason. Nope, gotta stay put.
Then I remember that shiver again and this gigantic laughter wells up inside and threatens to spill into the nearly-silent zendo. like thunder, lightning, the splashing of a torrential rain. Oh, dear.
I say to me, "breathe, breathe and let that thought go," and for maybe 30 seconds all is well, and then it starts all over again. I'm glad that this time, my monkey mind has fastened on hilarity rather than pain, but it would be nice to let go of this, too, because I'm still shaking and the tears are streaming down my face, and whatever this is, it probably ain't meditation.
And that goes on until the bell rings, and we rise and I feel the laughter etched into the corners of my mouth. The lightness of spirit that comes from being in at the birth of a truly great joke.
Oh yeah, I think, this is why, one of the reasons, why, I'm here.