Apologizing has become something of a lost art, I fear. There is such a thing as a correct way to apologize and thus an incorrect way of doing so. I fear this distinction is lost on many of us as we consider any half hearted “Sorry” to be as good as we can expect. Heck, we may not even expect that much of an apology. After all, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” However, I can’t help but think that there may be something to the idea of resurrecting this lost art and learning how to apologize correctly.
There are, as I see it, three key ingredients to a proper apology. Most of us make it only as far as the first, and even then, only partially. This is the admission of guilt or acknowledgment of responsibility. This is where the “I” in “I’m sorry” comes into play. Any excuses chip away at the sincerity of this ingredient. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, but I was having a really bad day” implies that a bad day justifies snapping at someone, which further implies that the speaker is more sorry that he or she had a bad day than for losing control and snapping at someone. There are of course, some extenuating circumstances which can by and large justify less than desirable behavior, but this loophole only should be used when the offense pales in comparison to the justification. In general, don’t make an excuse unless you actually believe it excuses your action.
The second component is an offer of restitution. If your actions have caused a damage that can be repaired, volunteer to do so yourself as best you can. This is easy when it comes to tangible damage. If you break someone’s glasses, offer to pay for a new pair. Most of us understand this concept as fair play. But the same principle applies to damage done directly to the person. In such a situation, there is often no obvious and simple way to make restitution. It’s far easier to pay for the coffee mug you dropped than it is to repair the trust in someone to whom you have lied. Every one of us walks around with scars left from the harmful words and actions of others. If you do hurt someone, and we all will at some point or another, do your best to mend the wound before it scars.
The third and final element in a proper apology is a resolution not to repeat the mistake. Some behaviors are so habitual that it is not feasible to promise perfection. Unless I die before the next time I visit the residence of a female, I will almost certainly leave the toilet seat up again. That’s just life. But those offenses most wanting for an apology should not be habitual. If they are, it may be necessary to take drastic measures. If you can’t promise that you won’t do something again, you should at least offer some plan toward improving in this area going forward. God designed us to be free to choose Him. Any action we can’t control controls us and thus needs to be dealt with accordingly. For those actions which you do control, any legitimate apology should include a firm resolution not to repeat the offense. And then, of course, you should follow through. By avoiding a repeat of the situation, you show that your apology was sincere and that you care more about the other person than about yourself.
None of these three elements is difficult in theory. However, because of our pride, our attachments to our own sinful inclinations, our tendency to dehumanize others and treat them as mere objects, and pure laziness, among other vices, we often fail to follow through. More often than not, if we are being honest with ourselves, our apologies amount to “Sorry, not sorry.” We say the words because we know we have to do so, but there is no sincerity behind them. Don’t just say the phrase in order that the other person will say it’s no big deal and you can brush it under the rug. Actually mean it. The next time you’re about to say you’re sorry for something, consider whether you’d be willing to replace a simple “I’m sorry” with “I screwed up. It won’t happen again. How can I make it up to you?” If not, just say “Sorry, not sorry” so you at least don’t have to add a false apology to the growing list of things for which you need to apologize.