The Art of Saying Sorry – Part 1

by Martin McDonald

The last time I wrote an article on saying sorry, I received gracious compliments from readers. I was, however, struck that most of those who complimented me referred to my article as being “on forgiveness.”

While it did appear in an issue of Restoration (November 2019) which had the theme of forgiveness, the article itself was specifically about saying sorry.

Saying sorry and offering forgiveness are two distinct actions ordered towards reconciliation.

One of the reasons I have taken an interest in the subject of saying sorry is that it is almost taboo. Whereas forgiveness is frequently and openly spoken and written about, one has to go looking for material on saying sorry (at least in my experience).

This imbalance can only be to the detriment of reconciliation, for if the arms of sorrow and the arms of forgiveness do not fully embrace, how can genuine reconciliation be achieved?

My aim here is to reflect on the key characteristics of saying sorry. The present article will look at why saying sorry is an art, explore motivations for saying sorry, and delve into what saying sorry means.

In a follow-up article, 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.

Our findings will show that saying sorry is a staple ingredient in healthy human relationships and a matter of Christian integrity.

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Why Saying Sorry Is an Art

We all have an aversion to saying sorry, and this stems from our first parents. After the first sin, they hid themselves from God in fear and shame. When God asked them a straight question, “Have you eaten of the tree?”, they did not give a straight answer.

Before admitting that they had eaten of it, Eve accused the “beguiling” serpent, and Adam pinned the blame on his wife and even on their Creator. At no point in this first experience of confession, did they say sorry to God or to each other (Gen 3:8-21).

Along with fear and shame, pride can also keep us from saying sorry, and it manifests itself in different ways.

Perhaps we have been taught that saying sorry is a sign of weakness, as Captain Nathan Brittles (played by John Wayne) claimed in the 1949 film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Perhaps we deceive ourselves and think that we have no sin (1 Jn 1:8) and that, therefore, we have nothing to apologize for.

Or do we perhaps lean towards moral relativism, which denies the existence of objective truth and views morality as subjective or “what’s right for me,” and which would seem to dispense with the need to say sorry?

Paradoxically, while saying sorry does expose a weakness (the wrong I am apologizing for), it is, at the same time, a sign of emotional and spiritual maturity.

A good apology requires initiative, responsibility, honesty, and, at times, virtue such as humility and courage. Since saying sorry does not come naturally or easily to us, it is an art that has to be learned and, as with any art, it takes time, effort, and discipline to master it.

Why would anyone want to master this art? Because it has the power to save a marriage and, if we take Jesus at his word, repentance—an action that includes being sorry for one’s sins—is a prerequisite for entry into the kingdom of heaven (Mt 18:3; Lk 13:3).

Knowing when and how to say sorry, then, is arguably the most important life skill that parents can teach their children.

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Motivations for Saying Sorry

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an outstanding model of how to approach saying sorry to our neighbour—and one does not need to be Catholic to appreciate this.

A traditional Act of Contrition begins by expressing that part of our motivation for saying sorry is fear of losing our relationship with God: “I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.”

This is a good starting point. However, the next line reveals the ultimate motivation or perfect contrition: “But most of all because they [my sins] have offended Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love.”

Even if saying sorry to God would not lead to us gaining heaven and avoiding hell, we still ought to do it as an act of justice, as something we owe him. And, according to the Act of Contrition, we need to be (or at least aspire to be) “heartily sorry.” What a gift that, whereas through sin we fail in our love for God, through saying sorry, we can renew our love for Him.

Likewise in human relationships, it is good to apologize in the hope of being forgiven or of regaining the relationship, but “most of all” our motivation ought to be that we are giving our neighbour his or her due (justice), regardless of the outcome.

When my daughters have done wrong or caused hurt, I ask them, “How can you put this right?” to which they usually respond, “Say sorry?”

Then immediately after saying sorry they often plead, “Can I have my toys back now?”

Oftentimes, there is a need to do more than say sorry, like offering to repair the lego creation they destroyed, deliberately or carelessly. “Simple justice requires as much” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1459).

Love raises the act of saying sorry to the level of “willing the good of the other.” (CCC, 1766). If I have slandered my neighbour, love would motivate me to make a good apology and to restore his or her reputation, not just out of obligation but because of the great good this would bring them. Love is kind and rejoices in the right (1 Cor 13:4-6).

“Making amends” has a beautiful double meaning: on the one hand, it means mending the injury we have caused another; on the other hand, it points to the need to make amends within oneself. This is how an Act of Contrition concludes: “I firmly resolve to amend my life.”

If my words are repeatedly hurting my wife, then instead of allowing saying sorry to become like an Advil to numb the pain, it should motivate me to get to the root cause of my hurtful words and then apply the appropriate remedy.

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What Saying Sorry Means

When making an apology, it is important that we mean what we say so that we are being honest with our neighbour and with ourselves. It would thus seem necessary to consider what the word “sorry” means and why it is at the heart of a good apology.

The verb to “apologize” means to “express regret for something that one has done wrong” (Oxford English Dictionary). “Sorry” is a predicative adjective, which means that it asserts something about the one saying sorry; namely that he or she is “feeling regret or sorrow.”

So whereas “I apologize” means that I am expressing regret for my actions, “I’m sorry” means that I am actually feeling regret or sorrow – and that is a profound difference.

Sometimes it may be fitting to say “I apologize”, such as in a statement correcting a public error.

However, in more personal and intimate matters it can come across as cold or impersonal. “I’m sorry” sounds and feels much warmer – and it may be just what our neighbour needs to hear from us to find healing. Indeed, as noted above, in the intimacy of the confessional we don’t merely express regret to God; we tell Him that we are heartily sorry.

If we do not feel some level of regret or sorrow for our actions then, in truth, we ought not to say “I’m sorry”. We wouldn’t say “I’m hungry” if we are not the least bit hungry.

Tone of voice can say a lot about the sincerity of one’s “sorry”. When my children say sorry and mean it, they have a soft inflection in their voice which is heartwarming. Instead of making them say sorry begrudgingly, my wife and I prefer to lead them, “When you’re ready, you owe your sister an apology.”

I was born and bred in Wales and the ancient Welsh language has a rich expression for saying sorry, Mae’n ddrwg da fi (pronounced, Mine throog da vee). It literally means, “it is bad with me”. Similarly, in the penitential act of the Mass (the Confiteor), Catholics confess having sinned “through my fault” (from the Latin, Mea Culpa).

In both Christian and non-Christian languages, saying sorry has been understood as an admission that my actions were wrong or inappropriate and that I am responsible for them. This means that a good apology says sorry without making excuses or blaming the other person.

(Of course, this does not exclude talking things through.)

As we conclude part 1, it is worth restating that saying sorry proceeds from the heart and touches the heart and thus should be approached with reverence. It is not a quick fix to defuse a conflict or a means for selfish gain or an instrument of abuse (i.e., Adam guilt-tripping Eve into apologizing).

Saying sorry ought to be a purely voluntary act, trying to make amends for an action that warrants an apology and that one is truly sorry for.

The author, the father of four daughters, is our friend and neighbor.

to be continued