What a Humane World Looks Like: Saying "I'm Sorry"

I've watched in sadness and frustration as public figures who've done wrong or made mistakes have absolutely refused to give a sincere apology. They find ways to shift blame, or to reinvent what they said or did. And we've all probably experienced the "not-really-sorry-apology," in which people say something like "I'm sorry if what I said offended you," thus shifting the responsibility to the "offendee" rather than the "offender." Of course, a mere apology without accepting responsibility and taking positive action to repair whatever is damaged, is of little use. But starting with a sincere apology can be liberating and empowering, as I recently affirmed.



While at the dog park last week, I saw a boy throwing a ball repeatedly at a dog who seemed to be his. He wasn't hurting the dog, but the dog was obviously frightened by being hit. As he passed me, I asked the boy (who was probably about 8) if he was purposely trying to hit the dog, and said that if he was, "That's not okay." I tried to be as calm and polite as possible, but I was focused on the dog's distress. The boy told me that he wasn't trying to hit the dog. I mentioned that I had seen him do so several times, and that the dog was less likely to want the ball if he kept hitting her with it. He assured me he wasn't trying to hit her, so I focused elsewhere, with an occasional eye on the boy and his dog. (He didn't throw the ball at her again.) I realized upon further reflection that he was indeed just trying to get his dog to play ball with him, and he wasn't knowledgeable in how to do so (and didn't realize that some dogs just don't have the ball gene).



Later, I saw the boy talking with his mother, and he said very loudly "I WASN'T trying to hit her!" which drew my attention. I listened without looking at them and heard the boy mention "woman" and "hat" (I was wearing a ball cap). He seemed quite distressed; I realized that I had truly upset the boy in questioning him about his behavior. I didn't feel that I had done anything wrong in questioning the boy, but I realized that I could have approached it differently, rather than starting with the assumption that he was trying to hit his dog with the ball. I had a choice. Should I apologize? Surely he wasn't that bothered by it; I had been really kind in my questioning. But as I watched from the corner of my eye, I realized that he had seen my questioning as an accusation of his character, and that he was indeed quite upset. I watched them slowly leave the park, the boy obviously despondent, and I debated what to do. I was afraid to go up to him and his family, but I didn't want to leave the boy feeling wrongly accused.



As I watched them walk to their car, my need to maintain integrity won out over my fear, and I went up to the boy and said, "I think what I said before really upset you, and I wanted to apologize." He stopped, but wouldn't look at me; I could tell he was listening, though. I continued. "I made an assumption instead of asking a question, and I'm sorry. I've seen people do lots of unkind things to animals before, so I get a bit sensitive. But I shouldn't have made an assumption, so I hope you'll accept my apology." The boy crowded close to his mom, but he said "I'm sorry too!" and we shook hands, and his mother was thrilled that I had taken that action to apologize to her son. I could tell that we all felt better for my having overcome my fear and reluctance to do the right thing. And, I had modeled a sincere apology.



Now let's imagine that I hadn't apologized. How would that boy have continued to feel? How might his behavior and his views about other people (and dogs and the dog park) been influenced?



What would happen if children saw us adults apologizing, accepting responsibility, and making reparations when we've done wrong?



What might happen if all those public figures who were responsible for racist comments and giant oil spills and economic meltdowns and other destructive actions said, "You know what? I messed up. I'm truly sorry, and I'm going to fix it. Here's how I'm going to fix it and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."?



Key 6 of the MOGO (most good) principle is Take Responsibility. Part of taking responsibility for creating a just, compassionate, healthy world means admitting our mistakes and transgressions, owning up to them, and taking positive action so that they don't happen again. And we can begin to do that with one sincere "I'm sorry" at a time.



~ Marsha



Image courtesy of butupa via Creative Commons.



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