The Strength in Sorry

When I started teaching, a lot of friends and family members expected me to be lax in the discipline department. I am rarely visibly fazed, and so laidback I am practically reclining. Half of me feared that I would turn out to be like the unsuspecting substitutes my friends and I used to run all over during high school.

We were all wrong about me, though. My students know that I am easy to joke with, but I also run a tight ship. If one student so much as utters a sound during the first five minutes of class, all twenty students return to the hallway to start the day over. It is in that space that I have given many of my greatest speeches, including one that started with this humble brag: “The great thing about me is that I don’t give up. And if you want to keep testing your limits, that’s fine. I’ve yet to back down. Try harder. I wish you all the luck in the world.” Some of my non-troublemaking students really appreciate my ability to make these speeches up on the spot, and will smile knowingly throughout my ramblings.

Despite my strictness, office referrals are not difficult to avoid in my classroom. I believe in doing my best to settle discipline with a student on my own, in order to maintain positive relationships and develop solid conflict-resolution skills. Most of classroom management comes down to being able to talk to a student person-to-person, and not escalating a situation beyond what is necessary.

My smarter students know that, after receiving a reprimand, the only thing required to settle a small dispute is to say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. That’s it. I don’t need a speech. I don’t need a grand gesture of sorrow. I definitely don’t need an excuse. I just need an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing, and then we can move on.

The problem with our world at large is that we do not live in an age of apologies. Our culture runs a lot of self-celebrating mantras up the flagpole: No Regrets, No Apologies, Do You, etc. In each of these precepts, the idea is that whatever you believe to be right is right, and everything else is just collateral damage.

I’m not sure what the hip lingo is these days, but not long ago the trendy joke to make was, “Sorry I’m not sorry.” It was an insult pinned on stereotyped sorority girls, but a conviction indirectly aimed at my entire generation. For actions we are expected to feel guilt for, we “regretfully” decline any remorse or even an ounce of self-reflection. 

A classic line I often see in the media and in real life is the non-apology: “I’m sorry you took it that way.” This is a poorly veiled way of saying, “I have done nothing wrong, but I am sorry that you’re so sensitive you took my actions offensively. It must suck to take everything so seriously.”

The problem with saying sorry in the modern age is that we’ve begun to confuse apologies with weakness. If someone realizes they are in the wrong, and takes responsibility for it, they must be weak. It goes against everything our current culture teaches us about saying what we feel with zero concern for how others take it. A few weeks ago I posted a blog about being careful with our words in relation to certain media events, and I was called some pretty vulgar names by complete strangers. The irony was not lost on me, though I’m afraid it was on them.

I recently read Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect,” and something she said struck me. She defined character as “the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life,” which, she explains, is “the source from which self-respect springs.”Joan Didion's Definition of Self-Respect

Our world does not have a lot of character, at least by these standards. This morning my pastor asked us to think about the people we haven’t apologized to, and I felt some strong conviction. I have a running list in my head of people I owe apologies, but I have not even attempted to pay those dues.

I carry that guilt around and let it weigh me down, and I think I am starting to understand what Didion meant by self-respect. If I had more of it, I would have owned up to my mistakes the minute I made them. Or at least I would’ve owned up to them by now. If our culture had real self-respect, we wouldn’t be so miserable with ourselves as we pretend to live freely and without regret.

A few weeks ago a student confided an intimate secret in another student, and that student let the secret slip almost instantly. As the rumor mill goes in middle school, the secret reached everyone’s ears by the end of the lunch period. After school, the student with the secret came to my room to talk to me about the day’s events. As she expressed her hurt over having her secret revealed, the other student walked in.

This ought to be good, I thought.

The student asked if he could sit with us, and I motioned him to the open desk at our table. After taking his seat, he sighed heavily, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I told one person, and they told everyone, and I see now that I was wrong for telling anyone in the first place. Please forgive me.”

“Why should I?” the girl implored. “You broke my trust. How could I ever give it back to you?”

The apologizer looked to me, as if I had some magic solution. “Mr. Taylor, can you help me?” he asked.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” I started, unsure of where this was going. “She will probably not forgive you for a long time, if at all. What you did was wrong. I am not going to rub your nose in it anymore, because it seems to me you are sincerely regretful. You don’t need guilt on top of guilt. What I will tell you is that this—you coming and apologizing—says a lot about your character. You have more integrity than I do, and I respect you for that. For now, you need to find comfort in the fact that although you made a mistake, you realized it and did the right thing afterward. That is more than I can say for many students and most adults I know, myself included.

I wish I could tell you that the two students mended their bond, and that they remained friends. I cannot speak to this. I have not seen them talk since it happened. The girl told me after he left that she could not forgive him, and I told her that she had every right to be angry, that she did not have to forgive him immediately, but that eventually it might be necessary in her healing process.

The hard and necessary part about apologies is that the admission of wrongdoing makes you very vulnerable in the hands of the person you hurt. You are giving all of your power to someone who was damaged by your words and your actions. The odds are not in your favor, nor should they be. You are the wrongdoer, after all.

However, I am starting to believe that the strongest people left in our world are those who own up to their mistakes, swallow their pride, and apologize to those they have hurt. After all, every single one of us is guilty of hurting others. The only difference between us is those who have owned up to it and those who have not.

The strange and beautiful thing about being on the giving end of an apology is that you also begin to find more grace in your heart to forgive others. When you have been the transgressor, you know the fear of not receiving forgiveness, and so become more understanding of the human capacity to make messes. It doesn’t mean that you excuse people for their mistakes; but you don’t hold a grudge either, the equivalent of drinking rat poison and waiting for the other person to die.

I am not one of the strong ones yet. I owe some apologies, I owe some graces. I have yet to hone the character that Didion notes is so rare in our world. For someone who usually only looks for an apology from his students to make things right, I sure keep a lot of people waiting on mine.

I think I will start this week, resting in the comfort that although I may not receive forgiveness, I might develop some strength in saying sorry.

7 thoughts on “The Strength in Sorry

  1. Sandy Yokeley March 2, 2015 / 12:32 am

    As always, I enjoyed this piece. You are wise beyond your years and such an extremely talented writer!

  2. Marisa Sibley March 2, 2015 / 4:03 pm

    Amazing… so important to remember when it comes to our words and actions towards others, but also towards ourselves.

    • bentaylorblogs March 4, 2015 / 11:39 pm

      Absolutely. Self-forgiveness is a constant struggle of mine.

  3. mrslmartini March 2, 2015 / 5:58 pm

    Love this. I think owning the responsibility for your actions and having the ability to apologize when at fault gives you the power to change – there is strength in being honest and vulnerable!

    • bentaylorblogs March 4, 2015 / 11:40 pm

      Exactly. For me, it is going to be a strength-building process as I am a beginner at it.

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