Words: A Perfect Apology: its Intention, its Motivation and its Two Sides


The subject of this post is something I’ve been intending to write about for a while.  

I have a brother who is part of a pastor team of a church.  He and I had a disagreement one day.  I was not in the wrong.  A few days of silence passed between us.  When the moment came for his apology he made it and it was full and complementary. 

By “full and complementary” I mean that if the incident were over breaking something dear to me, it would have been like this: “I am sorry I broke your little trinket that means so much to you.”  But it was about something else entirely (because my children have broken  all my meaningful trinkets) and the matter between me and my brother escapes me but it was a matter of the heart, my most precious trinket. 

While his apology was sincere, it came with a “; but,” and was followed by a string of words that denuded the power of the actual apology which brought us back to square 1.25.

That “but” can be huge.  Using “but” is the equivalent of an apology no-fly zone. “But” in an apology is three letters that immediately put the brakes on a meaningful moment and put the blame on the offended for being, what, a human for having a reaction.  Using “but” puts a condition on the Intention as well as a flashing neon question mark on the Motivation for the apology.  

Indulge me as I digress into a little visual etymology: the “U” in “but” reminds me of the valley of discord and isolation that using the “but” in an apology creates.  I love both my brothers deeply and while I sensed where things were going again with this brother, I blew it off.  We are all flawed human beings, “sinners,” as his vocation plainly and searingly puts it.  People jump to “but” in times like these as a default word, to explain themselves and that’s perfectly understandable.  However, it’s easy to handle that part, simply say: “I’m sorry I did XYZ and I’d like to explain myself.” 

Several hours later, he reached out to me and said, “That wasn’t a perfect apology.”

I said, “Huh? We’re good; you apologized.” I didn’t want to go into it again.  He disagreed.  But in a good way this time.  

So we talked about Intention: he went on to say that the inclusion of “but” in his apology took away the power of his apology from a 10 to a 5.  I thought more of a 2.  He joked that including “but” is passive aggressive and is akin to saying, “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”  We laughed and agreed; it was true.  We laugh about behaviors like that, peoples’ defense mechanisms, all the time; mostly with the irony of full-on reflective personal experience after the joke to say, “ha ha ha… yeah… wow… so um… you thirsty?”  

Because we are sibling word nerds we discussed the Motivation for this particular apology and while we were at it, for all apologies.  What are the Motivations: to make the “vic” (the offended) feel better or to make the “perp” (the offender) feel better?  If the Motivation is to honor the vic and is pure and sincere by truly expressing regret for what happened, there is no need or room (for that matter) for “but.”  If the Motivation is to make the perp feel better, that “but” is a natural by-product, a condition on the apology and so the damage is somewhat doubled and the vic is hosed.  The vic has two choices at that point, turn the other cheek as Jesus suggested or start another disagreement out of … pride. (Eeww.)  At that point, who’s the bigger, y’know: jerk?

We joked about the other trap: being the pride-less gracious acceptor.  Can we be gracious enough in the spirit of a perfect apology to say, “Apology accepted.  Thank you.  Would you like some chocolate?”  Without (brace yourself) saying, “you should’na XYZ …” Rrrrr.

We discussed the matter from a linguistic point of view — something we often get deeply into because we love to write and because we’re Irish words come naturally to us (and to my cousins and some dear friends as well, blah blah, get on with it).  I said the use of the actual word “sorry” to me is a sore point and here’s why: I would usually associate the internal meaning of “sorry” into the second use referenced below: 

sorry |ˈsärē; ˈsô-|
adjective ( -rier -riest )
[ predic. ] feeling distress, esp. through sympathy with someone else’s misfortune : I was sorry to hear about what happened to your family.
• ( sorry for) filled with compassion for : he couldn’t help feeling sorry for her when he heard how she’d been treated.
• feeling regret or penitence : he said he was sorry he had upset me | I’m sorry if I was a bit brusque.
• used as an expression of apology : sorry—I was trying not to make a noise.
• used as a polite request that someone should repeat something that one has failed to hear or understand : Sorry? In case I what?

adjective ( -rier , -riest) [ attrib. ] in a poor or pitiful state or condition : he looks a sorry sight with his broken jaw.
p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Baskerville} span.s1 {font: 13.0px ‘Lucida Grande’} unpleasant and regrettable, esp. on account of incompetence or misbehavior : we feel so ashamed that we keep quiet about the whole sorry business. 

I literally would take the meaning of “I’m sorry” to mean that I *AM* -personally- in a poor or pitiful condition: IN MY ENTIRETY; not just at that moment.  Heavy, I know.  So I have issues with the word.  

If you know me in the real world, you will know that when people say that phrase around me — even perfect strangers! — I will appreciably say, “Oh, don’t say ‘sorry’; say ‘excuse me’ or ‘I made a mistake.'” And some people if the time warrants will look at me quizzically and I’ll say, “because you’re not in a pitiful condition, you just made a mistake. I like to say ‘I apologize’ instead.” And then they run away and call security because the crazy lady won’t go away. Sorry… (see?)

The reasons for my association with the word is a subject of another post. But suffice it to say, I didn’t come up with it on my own; I wasn’t born sorry.  I learned it from my therapist (yeah, that guy who created that messed up group therapy  [which I’ve recently come to appreciate, thanks to an insightful friend, as a massive ego stroke for himself: poor guy had to drive 5 hours in each direction four times a year to feel needed]). We agreed that while there are two definitions of “sorry,” my internal baggage with it required that I use another word altogether, “apologize”:  

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px ‘Hiragino Mincho Pro’} p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 16.0px Baskerville} span.s1 {font: 24.0px Baskerville} span.s2 {font: 14.0px Baskerville}

apologize |əˈpäləˌjīz|
verb [ intrans. ]
express regret for something that one has done wrong : I must apologize for disturbing you like this | we apologize to him for our error.
ORIGIN late 16th cent. (in the sense [make a defensive argument, offer a justification] ): from Greek apologizesthai ‘give an account,’ from apologos (see apologue ). In English the verb has always been used as if it were a direct derivative of apology. 

I like “apologize” much better.  Three reasons: a) because I’m a word freak; b) the inclusion of  ‘express’; and c) it’s a verb. It’s an actual action, thus it resonated.  It was and is perfect.

I realize now, after all that therapy that I’m not in a poor state or pitiful condition.  And so when I say “I’m sorry,” I’m cool with it. 

The point of all this is that when you apologize, don’t say ‘but.’  If you have to say ‘but’ you need time. It’s perfectly acceptable to say “I regret the direction this has taken and I’m almost ready to apologize perfectly for it but I need some time.” Which then creates:   

An examination into the second side of an apology. 

When we apologize we mean to regret, to take back what we did that hurt the other person.  

This is convoluted, so take your time: 

But in my examinations (most recently as 12 hours ago after an extremely ironic turn of events between myself and a  dear friend), I have come to realize that in order to apologize fully I must appreciate and examine that pain that spurred my doing or saying something I regret that deserves an apology.  (I don’t want to spend all day examining my navel, so these things can happen relatively quickly because I’m such a pro now.)

Here ’tis: People don’t just lash out for no reason. We’d like to think we do, but no, we don’t.  Almost always, the lashing is a defense mechanism to protect something so deep, so feral and primitive we likely don’t understand it. It’s why that dad shot his kid’s laptop.  This dad, and me last night, and likely my brother, felt intense pain that represented something else.  The dear friend who offended me last night had no clue.  Until I lashed out.  I was eloquent, I was concise, I was deliberate and defensive and I said stuff that wasn’t germane but nasty.  I was all those things my English major pedigree engendered.  And I was wrong.  Not wrong to feel the way I did, because judging our feelings is another peace deathtrap, but wrong to lash out.  Wrong to not sit and examine why I felt the way I did at the comment that created the feelings.  

That’s the second side of a perfect apology and I have to thank that dear friend because if she hadn’t said what she did, this post would not be as robust nor would I have a full appreciation of The Work I still have yet to perform on myself.  I’m cool with it; in fact I think I’ve performed most of The Work, but now the hard part: self-awareness.  Self awareness to me is like applying your knowledge, that dreaded “Show Your Work!” edict in math class.  That “oh yeah? prove it” when you say you can do 30 military style push-ups in less than a minute without stopping. 

Thank you dear friend.  

The reason for the discourse on second side of apologies in this post (you’re probably saying, “Ugh! you mean there’s MORE?!” but this is where you come in, dear reader) is my dear friend’s innocent suggestion that I use the capitalized form of the pronoun ‘i’ in my blog posts.  

Amazingly, this suggestion was made on the heels of her recant of an imperfect apology to which I replied “thank you” and that I planned on writing about perfect apologies. Her suggestion had nothing to do with her apology, so it felt like a slap. And it riled in me a constrained fury of depth from a primitive place inside me that if I hadn’t recently done a grueling workout, I would’ve either elected to do it or had gone deeply inside with that anger and turned it into a micro depression.  Instead, I was highly agitated and distracted by the incident. 

Her suggestion is warranted under the aegis that if I decide to parlay this blog into something professional One Day (emphasis mine) that it would behoove me, in that regard, to y’know… dress it up (mine too).  Proper punctuation is easier to read and it allows the words to flow as readers are familiar with it.  She’s absolutely right in that argument.  

But that’s not the intention of this “Grass Oil” blog.  It’s named after a phrase Thing 3 made when he was 5.  So to me, that means it isn’t supposed to be professional; it’s more of a chronicle for my kids as they grow up, to know how things were in our family when they were younger and a playground-slide trip into their mom’s head.  I suggested to her that anyone who turns to their personal blog as something to showcase their writing skills for a potential career in writing would be akin to pissing into a headwind. I stand by that as these personal blogs are often rife with errors, personal observations and seeming inside jokes. 

Another motivation for writing this blog is that I also have a morbid fear that I could be taken from My 3 Things’ lives early and so I wanted to leave something personal for them (lessons, observations that can help shed a little light on their own behaviors) rather than, say, a scarf.  I did knit blankets for them. Or that the language part of my brain will deteriorate from a flesh-eating virus and my ability to write will be . . . um, disabled.  (That was not eloquent.)

But maybe my dear friend is correct? I’d actually considered it a while ago and I don’t wince when saying so.

Maybe I would like someone with influence and money bags to see my writing.  Maybe I would like to be asked to represent someone professionally.  It would be nice for that person to know I can adhere to Chicago or AP style and basic grammar rules and that I’m not some defiant and militant ee cummings adherent.  But then there’s the little kid in me that says, “up yours. this is my zone, my place. my rules. go find your own. i don’t tell you how to write.”   

So then it comes back to me as a matter of motivation. I have to think about whether or not I’m afraid of success and its ugly twin: fear of failure.      

So here I am: using proper case with the letter ‘i’ as pronoun. I am using proper sentence and punctuation structure. I am double-spacing after periods. I am writing tight cohesive sentences (no more meaty run-ons).  I am not abusing m-dashes or ellipses.  (i am bored to tears.)

Snidely Whiplash moment: Maybe this post would be my sample writing for a prospective employer, book or literary agent.  ‘Cause Lawd knows, I gots The Gift.  But do I have the confidence?  Am I ready? If you’ve been following me since last January, you may recall that my Creating This Blog was and is a huge step for me. 

So I ask of you, dear reader, what say you about the capital ‘i’ as pronoun?  Would consistent and proper use make it easier for you?  If enough of you say it does, say the word and I’ll change it.  (Instead of “change it” I was going to say “be healed”  — from a refrain at Mass, which also seems apropos, it being Sunday an’ all …) 

btw, something’s wacky with the fonts and formatting today, I apologize. 

thank you. 

2 responses »

  1. I am smile-crying. Beautiful. Thank you. I have more to say but I am chilled to the bone after my run. I have more to say about everything except for the pronoun. Gah. It is a pronoun right? I never can keep it straight. OK. Hot shower for El.

  2. thaw. here's the actual usage rule: "I" is a first-person singular nominative case personal pronoun in Modern English. It is used to refer to one's self and is capitalized, although other pronouns, such as "he" or "she," are not capitalized.

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