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.