When is Sorry Enough?


It’s a cliché.

When a husband messes up, the wife gets flowers. Jewelry if it was a really big screw-up.

It doesn’t make up for the screwup, but it’s a ritual that shows contrition. And, in solid marriages, forgiveness follows, even if it takes a while.

Society doesn’t really have a contrition ritual. And it’s made us suspicious and unforgiving.

It’s good practice to apologize. Sometimes, even when you weren’t trying to be hurtful, you were just thoughtless.

I’m sorry.

It’s a good practice. In fact, during a period when our daughter never wanted to be blamed for anything, my husband used to tell her he would give her a quarter if she owned up to being wrong. She didn’t earn a lot of quarters. In fact, “no quarter for you” has become a family shorthand for pointing out when someone is refusing to take ownership of a mistake.

I was wrong.

It’s hard to apologize. Or, rather, it’s hard to apologize and mean it.

But lately, there’s another layer. It makes it impossible to make it right. Maybe you’ve heard of it. The cancel culture. It says that you should not do anything wrong in the first place, because you should have known. And if you do something wrong, you get canceled.

Two recent examples.

There’s this program in which chefs switch restaurants. This past year, they switched recipes instead. An Italian chef and his crew got recipes from an Asian restaurant in Australia and made the recipes. The Italian chef celebrated the successful dinner with an Instagram photo that was awful. His crew had conical Asian hats and even pulled their eyes up into a slant. Here’s the link, but you don’t have to see it to know how offensive this might be.

After a firestorm of comments, the chef pulled down the post and apologized. Here’s what he said:

“The shot in question was dictated by the excitement and enthusiasm that the confrontation with a new culture has generated in our daily work,” he wrote, “Now I realize, that I probably don’t know the subject of the question well enough and that I have underestimated its meaning.”

Is it adequate? Was he really sorry? That’s up to you to decide, but even after the apology, there were calls to boycott the chef because, well, he should have known. But what could he have done to fix what he had done?

Or take the Hallmark Channel, which offers the movie equivalent of comfort food.

An advertisement showed two women kissing after being married. Some vocal conservatives protested and the ad was pulled. And then the real protests started as Hallmark got letters and emails from people asking why they supported only hetero romance – although, really, has anyone seen these movies? If you’re gay – or even nonwhite – you’re the best friend or assistant, but never the star in your own Hallmark romance. Still. The CEO apologized, said he was wrong, invited the advertiser was back. I have no way of knowing if his apology was genuine. But, a few weeks later, he was out. What could he have done to fix his error in judgment?

We seem to have lost the ability to say, “Yes, and…”

Black and white. Evil on the other side of the political spectrum, with no room for compromise because why would you work with evil? And if a politician has grown and evolved past the flawed person he  used to be? If he is just as shocked as we are by his use of blackface when he was young and stupid? Well, too bad. There is no ritual to make it right.

We should have been pure in the first place. Because, otherwise, boycotts and firings and smudged legacies.

I am not saying we should ignore crimes. But if forgiveness is really never possible, then why bother sending anyone to jail? Just kill them and get it over with because there’s no room for rehabilitation or change or evolution or growth. Nothing can be done to fix it.

We don’t have a ritual for making up. Community service comes closest, but it doesn’t really help the person harmed, it just offers some generic volunteer hours to the community at large. And I’m not sure it teaches anything.

But still, there has to be some way back. Some way to make it right.

Starting with admitting we’re wrong. And then really working on fixing the divide. That’s worth a whole lot more than a quarter.

I am sorry

Listen to the companion blog! 

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