Mastering the Art of Saying Sorry – Part 2

by Martin McDonald

Welcome to part 2 of “The Art of Saying Sorry.” I am an apprentice learning and trying to teach my kids an invaluable life skill and hoping to raise the profile of a beautiful yet neglected art. Ideally, parts 1 and 2 go together,* but this article can stand alone.

In what follows, I will offer some guidelines on how to formulate a good apology, discuss expectations after making an apology, and propose a method for teaching this art to children.

We will continue to draw from the Sacrament of Reconciliation as an outstanding model of how to approach saying sorry to our neighbour.

How to Formulate a Good Apology

As we saw in part 1, a good apology speaks the truth in love (Eph 4:15). For something minor, a simple “I’m sorry!” may suffice. Something serious deserves a thorough effort.

First, we would do well to humbly and honestly examine our actions. Have I erred “in my thoughts” or “in my words, in what I have done” or “in what I have failed to do” (the Confiteor)?

One might object, “But I didn’t mean to do it!” which is good. However, intentions aside, our actions can still be wrong or inappropriate and cause hurt or damage.

Following Jesus’ commandment, You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Mt 22:39), it can help to ask, how would I feel if she said or did that to me?

Next, we want to choose our words carefully, being sensitive to how they could be received. As with a sacramental confession, we ought to name all of our mistakes without knowingly omitting anything. We may also need to admit that our actions were wrong or inappropriate.

A really good apology acknowledges and tries to repair any hurt or damage caused by one’s actions, inactions, and any relevant circumstances.

Finally, a good apology is delivered with sincerity, without excuses, and in a respectful and timely manner.

For example, let’s say my daughter is acting up and I get angry and yell at her, “Shut your mouth! You stupid girl!”

Let’s add the circumstance that this happens an hour before leaving for school/work and the inaction that I leave without saying sorry. My daughter’s acting up does not justify or excuse my behaviour, and my apology needs to reflect that.

“I’m sorry for yelling” by itself would be disproportionate to the gravity of my mistakes and a further injustice to my daughter. Conjunctions such as “if” and “but” add a clause which would also undermine my apology.

For instance, if I say, “I’m sorry if my words hurt you,” I am not showing regret for my words or acknowledging that they have hurt her, and she might be left thinking that the fault lies with her feelings.

To make full amends I must retract my abusive comment and affirm the truth of her inherent worth and her worth in my eyes. If left unsaid, the psychological wounds will remain and could have adverse effects (i.e., loss of self-confidence, venting anger at school).

After school/work I should waste no time asking my daughter in a gentlemanlike manner if I may talk with her. With a little humility, these words will offer healing for her and our relationship:

“I am sorry for yelling at you, for telling you to shut your mouth, and for calling you a stupid girl. It was wrong for me to say those things to you and I’m sorry for the hurt I have caused you. I’m also sorry for not apologizing before school; it must have been hard for you to carry my words around all day. You are not a stupid girl. You are a brilliant girl and I love you!”

Expectations After Making An Apology

Forgiveness is a gift. It is not an entitlement. Sometimes after saying sorry, my daughters exclaim, “Daddy, she won’t say ‘I forgive you’!”

Just as she freely chose to say sorry, she needs to respect her sister’s freedom to choose if and when she wants to forgive. Once she has made a good apology, her responsibility ends and her sister’s responsibility begins, and it is important to remain on the right side of that boundary. Love is patient and does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:4-5).

Being or feeling pressured into offering forgiveness would compromise the purity of the gift. In my example of an apology, I chose not to ask my daughter to forgive me because although asking for forgiveness can be well meant, it can also be received as pressure.

Furthermore, though there are times when we cry out to God, “Have mercy on me!”, as a penitent in the confessional, we don’t ask for forgiveness. We say sorry and hope that God will forgive us, but it is not a given; the priest, acting in the person of Christ, can withhold absolution if he sees a defect in our contrition (Jn 20:23).

It can hurt when the other person does not accept or takes time to accept our apology. Still, if we have been thorough at each step in our apology, we can be at peace that we have done what we can to right our wrong. And if we are genuinely sorry, we should have no difficulty giving the other room to query our apology and being open to modifying it, if necessary.

A Method for Teaching This Art

To paraphrase an old proverb, my wife and I want to go beyond giving our children a formula to help them for a day and teach them an art to help them for a lifetime. To this end, we have a simple and effective method that we call “bedtime apologies.”

Daily or weekly before making an Act of Contrition to God, we open up the floor for a few moments to voluntarily say sorry to each other.  This gives children a safe atmosphere within which they can listen to their conscience and ask themselves: have I done wrong or hurt others? Do I need to say sorry?

Then it is up to them to take responsibility and to find the words. Offering forgiveness is also voluntary. Those who are not ready to forgive are encouraged to at least say “Thank you” to the one who has made an effort to say sorry.

Our daughters have really taken to bedtime apologies. One time, our six-year-old enquired, “Can we say sorry for something we did a while ago and forgot to say sorry for?”

Absolutely! Another time, I said sorry to my wife and she assured me that I didn’t need to apologize for this particular thing. Then the same daughter looked up at and informed me reassuringly: “It’s good to say sorry though, just in case!”

Keeping in mind the importance of speaking the truth with love, there is wisdom in this little one’s words.

One bedtime, our seven-year-old asked Mummy if she could talk with her in private. She hadn’t said anything during bedtime apologies, but she had clearly been listening to her conscience, and it prompted her to apologize to Mummy for something she had done and which she was not comfortable expressing openly. This is what bedtime apologies is all about!

The point is not that this is the only time we say sorry and that those who say nothing are either failing or getting off scot-free. Bedtime apologies is an opportunity, an example, and a reminder of the need to examine one’s conscience regularly and, wherever necessary, to show initiative, take responsibility, and try to make amends.

And it’s not so much about these early years; it’s about how our children are forming good habits that will serve them well in adulthood, when the need to make a good apology will be more critical.

Bedtime apologies is also a gift of an opportunity for parents to teach by example. Our children get to see my wife and I say sorry to and renew our love for each other. And when we say sorry to them, they get to fall asleep knowing that they are loved and that they are not to blame for their parents’ mistakes. How many children in the world are deprived of this?

Conclusions

Our reflections have shown that “sorry” is a small word with a big personality. The ability to say sorry is a sign of strength and can strengthen our relationships. A master of this sacred art is always open to learning; strives to not let fear, shame, or pride lead him or her to withhold or put off a good apology; and says sorry for all the right reasons, the chief of which is love.

To appreciate the power, beauty, and necessity of saying sorry we need look no further than Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus did not openly promise paradise to both criminals crucified on either side of him. Was the God of mercy being unmerciful moments before the hour of mercy?

God is Love and love respects free-will. Jesus forgave the Good Thief because he chose to make an act of repentance—amidst excruciating pain and in the nick of time (Lk 23:39-43).

Catherine Doherty once wrote: “No one forgives these days, nationally and internationally speaking, and perhaps also personally. That is why we have the mess that we have” (Madonna House Staff Letter #59).

She was right. At the same time, does anyone say sorry these days either? And if they do, do they do it well? Perhaps people would be more inclined to forgive and perhaps the mess would not be as messy, if they did.

*Part 1 was published online on  March 10th. Google: Madonna House Restoration.

The End