I once worked for a school, as a kind of transport assistant for special needs pupils. One of my most vivid memories from that period is a teacher gently scolding one of my charges for running off ahead of me:
T: “What do you say to Michael?”
T: “And what does sorry mean?”
P: “Sorry means it won’t happen again”
Let’s put aside the particulars: this was in relation to a specific traffic situation; the pupil in question was wonderful and was just dying to get to class – the school/teacher was that good. It was bad behaviour for the best possible reasons, and if I am honest I genuinely miss/feel bad about not knowing these kids anymore. However, that’s not why I’m writing about this (though maybe it deserves it’s own treatment).
The point is, the lesson spoke to me, deeply – what does ‘sorry’ mean? Surely it does mean something like ‘it won’t happen again’. Otherwise, what’s the point of saying it? And it occurred to me then that I had spent a great deal of my life trading that word’s real meaning for a kind of counterfeit version, where ‘sorry’ is largely performative.
By that I don’t mean I was deliberately fake or deceptive – I think even in those instances, I was genuinely admitting to or acknowledging wrong-doing or personal failing. The question is, does that really have any meaning or significance in the absence of a change of behaviour? I have long held that ‘we are the things we do and the words we say’, meaning that if we have a ‘character’ or an ‘identity’, it is the sum of our conduct. Saying you care about poverty is meaningless if you do nothing to prevent or reduce it. Saying you care about global warming is meaningless if you never make choices which reflect that claim (whether political, social, or financial). Saying you care about animals and their welfare is meaningless if you regularly eat factory-farm meat. You may not agree with these specific examples or their implications, but the point is that your beliefs should correspond with your actions in some way – otherwise they are not really beliefs, just empty statements.
Without going into too much detail here, I have tried my best to hold myself to that standard. I have often failed, and still do (my vegetarianism has entirely collapsed in the last couple of years), and have been pretty open and honest about that. But for a very, very long time, I did not even consider that it applied to a simple statement of apology. If you say you’re sorry for something, then do it again, ad infinitum, surely the apology is meaningless? This may seem obvious, but in practice we often look past it. For example, for most of my life I was habitually late. I was never on time for anything, sometimes to a truly obnoxious degree. I would always apologise for being late, and always be late for my next appointment or engagement. I would perform apology, but it was entirely hollow because it didn’t reflect any change in attitude or behaviour. Yet it was basically accepted, and I was far from the only one even in my relatively small circle of friends. In fact, Ireland as a country/culture is notorious for this – it’s basically normal!
Of course, whilst the habit can be difficult to break (though it is possible – I am now a reformed unpunctual), it is fundamentally simple to make amends for this sort of thing. You buy the aggrieved a coffee or lunch, say sorry, and then stop being late all the time. For most of the people you interact with, this is a sufficient and acceptable way to make amends for a life of habitual tardiness. But what about more serious wrongs, habitual or otherwise? What if you mistreated someone over a long period? What if you committed a significant wrong against someone, like assault or abuse of some other kind? How could a murderer possibly make amends for killing an innocent person, who no longer exists?
Of the above examples, I can only speak to the first. I had a long-term partner that I treated very unfairly in some respects over a number of years. Without getting into detail here, basically it came down to a mixture of addiction and resulting financial irresponsibility. I was never abusive in any way (I am lucky in that I can hand-on-heart say it’s just not in my nature), but at times I was definitely a pretty shitty boyfriend who failed to live up to his obligations. I was nice and good and kind in many other respects, but that merely compensated, it didn’t excuse. My addiction inevitably involved deception, and safe to say that’s always a pretty shit buzz for the other person.
For what it’s worth, I remain on good terms with my former partner. We both had our faults and failings, and although I personally feel that on the long view I was the worse partner, neither of us bears the other any ill-will or resentment. However, I do regret a certain imbalance: I feel like my former partner made amends for her wrongs over the course of our relationship, whereas we broke up before I did (and largely because I was not yet able to). I have no doubt that my former partner would be delighted to see me clearly break my addiction over the long term, and live a happy, meaningful, and reformed life (working on it!!!), but from my point of view, that doesn’t feel like enough. At this stage I don’t think I can make amends directly to her, and I don’t think she expects or even wants that (and I have asked). And when I think more widely about some of the more extreme examples I mentioned, in a lot of those scenarios there is no possibility of restorative amends or justice. That milk is uh, under the bridge.
I don’t know that I have a resounding conclusion to offer here. But my thinking has led me to believe that making amends requires not just the cessation of negative behaviour, but some form of positive inverse. If you are a reformed unpunctual, maybe you should go out of your way to make time for people whenever possible. If you have hurt someone in the past to whom you can no longer make amends directly, perhaps you should try do a kind of good that they would appreciate – supporting a cause dear to them, for example. If you have committed a great wrong, recognise that there is more than enough personally actionable injustice in this world than any one person could possibly commit. ‘Sorry’ means it won’t happen again, but making amends requires something more.
For my own part, I think writing this has given me a better idea of what I need to do, how to walk the walk. And it is truly gladdening to be able to say with conviction that I can make up for past wrongs; that the stain of vice can be removed through virtue.