It may seem churlish, arch and dickish of me to bring this up, especially during our Second Civil War here in the land of the conditionally free and the home of the transactionally brave, but a sincere apology is a powerful thing, a force for peace and reconciliation. Sad to say, as Sir Elton sang it, in words probably written by Bernie Taupin, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’.
I think about this each year at this time on the Jewish calendar, during the Ten Days of Repentance. We are supposed to use this time to honestly review our actions of the past year, find acts we regret, times we were wrong, seek out, apologize to and make amends with the person we hurt.
It is a beautiful and very humane idea. It is a caring thing to do for people we care about. It is a hard fucking idea, to make yourself humble and vulnerable, especially when the hurt was mutual, where you feel like the other person also acted like a jackass. Too hard for most of us to sincerely apologize because, seriously, the world has probably been meaner to us than we were to some provocative asshole who desperately demanded whatever we might or might not have done to them.
This self-justification is the working of anger and its first cousin pride. These emotions have one demand: I am right and you are an asshole. It’s a zero-sum emotional landscape. While I am angry at you, my friend, you are a fucking piece of shit and I have a hundred reasons why. Deny it, go ahead, it only makes you more despicable, unredeemable, deserving of my wrath.
I realized the other night that in my understandable desire to have someone stop talking aggravating shit to me, I went too far. I didn’t stop to consider that this old friend’s sudden rage might have indicated he was having a serious problem or something. He attacked like a petty prosecutor, he doubled down when I tried to explain, when I asked for the benefit of the doubt. His final email came back lightning fast and really got under my skin.
I waited a few days, removed some expletives from my reply and methodically, surgically, wounded his pride to shut him up. The hideous noise stopped, peace, end of story.
I can rationalize my hurt, my anger, 100%. The guy acted like a world class jerk, no question. Yet, look, I was also very harsh to him. Those are two different things — his acts and mine, and we are each responsible for our own. I was wrong. I erred on the side of hurting him too much, to guarantee he would have no reply. His timing had also been bad, his instant double-down on his anger came back right before my birthday. A self-righteous, superior, stupid stream of steaming shit, right in my inbox. I needed to make it stop.
Did I need to cut off both of his arms and legs, and his head, to make sure he couldn’t respond? It felt like I needed to at the time, to be sure, but now I can see a range of choices I didn’t consider, much more productive ways to proceed. I did the one thing that would guarantee the quiet I needed, though it also ended not one but two friendships.
Was I wrong? Arguably not. Still, did I need to be so harsh? Probably didn’t need to be so harsh. So I sat down the other night to write a letter apologizing for my role in our titanic, fatal battle of the assholes. No point arguing over who was more at fault, we were both hurt and angry and lashing out.
I did something I now know was wrong and I am sorry. Sorry I was so viciously hurtful, what I did would have hurt me, would have hurt anyone. It cost me two old friends, and I was wrong to offer no way back from our dumb fight over nothing specific.
Writing that letter while refraining from justifying myself cost me blood. As I was writing it I had to keep separating what I had done from the several strong provocations. You may well have provoked me to want to punch your lights out, but I can still regret punching your lights out. It does not accord with the way I want to live — being provoked and lashing out in return, I try to do better.
Maybe it’s impossible to be friends with an insecure, competitive person who turns out to be a cheap-shot artist when it comes down to it, still, my reaction to even a cheap shot is my choice. I chose wrong by calmly and methodically cutting this guy’s limbs and head off.
I spent a few hours writing the letter of apology. I think it was a decent apology. I have no expectation that it will change anything, and I wrote as much, but it was important to me to seize this important, widely neglected religious obligation to try to make peace instead of war. I went to sleep and had troubled dreams.
I had been challenged, by a gang of Thai toughs, to body surf down a steep flight of stairs and, for some reason, I’d accepted the challenge. A Thai tough had put on a motorcycle helmet and, when I wasn’t watching, supposedly tobogganed down the steps on his belly, arms outstretched like superman. I stood at the top, having accepted their challenge, and had many second thoughts — though there was clearly no way out.
I asked for the helmet. The owner of the helmet refused, handing me a soft stocking cap instead. So soft I stood there petting it, a really beautiful material. I put it on, stalling, not quite sure how I’d wound up in this untenable position. I told them I needed to go next door.
Next door, in the bar, I ran into a girl I used to know. I told her about my predicament and that I had to go back and body surf down this steep staircase next door. Instead of talking sense to me, or urging me to flee, as I was out of the presence of the toughs, she told me she’d go with me, that she had to see this. She accompanied me next door, back to the top of the stairs, where she took a seat on a long bench with the Thai toughs (why were these toughs Thai? No idea) and waited for me to make my injurious descent. What the fuck, I thought? I continued to stall.
I stalled long enough to wake up from this dream. When I did, my first thought was that letter of apology I’d written to a person who had already told me that my previous two apologies, while sincere, were beside the point. A person incapable accepting an apology and of apologizing himself. I was angry about bending a knee to someone I still thought of as a petty tyrant, a giant two year-old.
I understand: you don’t apologize for the petty tyrant’s sake. You apologize for your regrettable, if arguably justifiable, overkill. You apologize to remind yourself to try to do better next time.
You apologize for the way your taking of the high road (no cursing, no outward show of hurt or rage) was nonetheless dismissive, vicious, and reduced the other person to sputtering, silent rage he could only take out on his wife.
You apologize for the sake of the wife’s feelings, and because you probably didn’t need to remove all four of the guy’s limbs, and his head, no matter how loudly and aggressively the angry tough guy may have demanded it.
You apologize because it is the right thing to do, because the world is better when people try to make peace than when they hold ugly grudges. Even if it makes you feel like you are giving in to a smirking bunch of asshole bullies who wait for you to break a limb or two, or perhaps your neck, as you try to keep your word.