Who’s Sorry Now!

I want to extend my heartfelt apologies:

  • To the Aboriginal people we recent invaders dispossessed,
  • To the children that some of us have abused,
  • To those people our intemperate language has offended,
  • To the animals we have been cruel to,
  • To the women we failed to promote to high office,
  • To the “boat people” we turned away,
  • To those people whose birthdays I forgot,
  • To those whose jokes I didn’t laugh at,
  • To Clive Palmer for not taking him seriously,
  • To the English cricket team for the embarrassment meted out to them in the last Ashes series.

Of course there are many other sins that I have committed and many other people I have offended that might also under current societal protocols seem to warrant an apology. But unfortunately I don’t feel in the least compelled to do so. (The list I provided above was certainly done with tongue in cheek!)

You might ask what has prompted me to write this essay. Well I have always been concerned about apologies for two reasons:

  • They normally don’t make any practical difference, and
  • They encourage people to affect suffering and take on the status of “victimhood” in order to manipulate the behaviour of others, which is a disempowering state.

Apologies are often irrational. Let me give you a few examples.

When I was young, out of my youthful ignorance, I might have done something which you believed was offensive. If you draw my attention to that slight now, should I apologise? In many respects I am not that person who gave offense (not that you should ever have taken offense, as we shall see later). It is almost as though I have a surrogate apologising for the insensitivity of another.

But we now seem to have a tendency to demand apologies from those who are even further removed the perceived offensive behaviour.

This came to my mind again this week with the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Abe offered his “most sincere condolences” to those Australians who had suffered as a result of Japanese aggression in World War II. But this was not enough for many who clambered for a far more wide ranging apology.

The Japanese committed many atrocities against Australian troops and others during the War which is a fact that neither we nor they can resile from. But I don’t think it makes much sense for Abe to apologise for something for which neither he, nor the current generation of Japanese that he represents, can be held responsible.

There are real and, in some cases, understandably strong emotions involved here. When I was a young man I worked with a group of men, quite a few who had exemplary military careers forged by fighting the Japanese. Their courage was indisputable and I admired them greatly. But they had come to see the Japanese as something less than human. No doubt if you had as an objective killing them that is a useful point of view which probably made living with yourself somewhat easier. Whilst in today’s circumstances such an outlook seems appalling, I lay no blame on these good, brave men who fought for us so many years ago.

On the other hand there are many stories of men who were enemies in this great conflict who have been reconciled. They know, for whatever reasons – patriotism, pride or whatever – that in the end their circumstances were similar and they were called to “do their duty”, often against their will, to fight for causes not of their own making.

So what outcomes should we desire from these things? Obviously, our prime concern is to ensure such atrocities are never committed again. As well as he could, Abe gave such a commitment. So let us forget about ineffectual apologies and get on to doing useful things like cementing the sort of positive relationships between nations and peoples that will help mitigate against such conflict.

[Christianity, via the Old Testament, not unusually, provides ambiguous views on whether subsequent generations should be held responsible for the sins of their forbears. The early parts of the Bible (Exodus 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18) portray God as “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children,” while later parts of the Bible (Jeremiah 31:29; Ezekiel 18:2; Job 21:19) reject this and teach that “sons [shall not] be put to death for their fathers.”) So no wonder even the devout might be confused by this issue.]

In a recent  essay I gave another example of what I believe is an ineffectual apology. I have repeated it below.

Like many such things, indigenous affairs have been distorted by politics. Consequently many of the programs, run supposedly to advance indigenous welfare, have often been cosmetic and more designed to win indigenous votes. And politics often rears its ugly head to muddy the waters in indigenous affairs through pointless symbolism and counter-productive interventions.

Many of us, and certainly most indigenous folk, will remember February 13, 2008. On that day thousands of indigenous people gathered in Canberra to assemble in the House of Representatives or on the lawns outside where a giant screen reflected proceedings inside. The reason for the gathering was to hear the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd express regret at injustices endured by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Rudd had come to do something no other Prime Minister had been prepared to do and that was to say “sorry”. Rudd received a standing ovation in the House and I suspect he might regard this as the pinnacle of his political career. Now I wouldn’t denigrate him for his action, even though the more cynical might say it was more designed to win political support from indigenous people than to make any discernible difference to their welfare. I am not against people wanting to feel good, but I am concerned when their “victimhood” status is reinforced. My principal reservations however, are about the fact that it did no good in a practical sense.

An aboriginal baby born on that day faced the prospect of a life that was 17 years shorter than other Australian babies born at the same time. That prospect has only marginally improved.

So let’s cut to the chase. Most human issues are best resolved if we can deal with them in an objective way. Of course this is usually impossible. The reason this is so is that to deal with the world objectively we have to get our egos out of the road. Now if you don’t feel particularly good about yourself your ego demands that you be particularly defensive. And that colours the way you see the world. No doubt you will accuse me of nagging now, but I have persistently tried to convince people that the world is not the problem, but how we view it.

Now to understand this better let us look at some of our dysfunctional responses to the world as it is. The most common problem we experience through our distorting lenses is that people don’t treat us in the way we would like to be treated.

The problem usually begins in our youth. As Narcisso and Burkett wrote in their superb little book Declare Yourself:

…..the young adult grows up learning that he is not important, that he needs permission to do things, that he is controlled by outside forces, and that he must hide his real self. He believes that learning is something given to him by other people and that he must become what others want him to become.

The young adult may be anything but free.

He may have learned too few options.

What is being proposed here is (even though our biological histories have an impact) that people learn how to behave. Part of the repertoire we learn is what Narcisso and Burkett call “get-my- way-behaviours”.

Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go. Robert McKinley, a psychiatrist in San Antonio, used these broad headings in his book The Complete Neuroticist.

So when I complain that you have somehow “hurt” me and therefore demand an apology, I am using the “suffering” get-my-way technique. To quote from Narcisso and Burkett:

…….there are many ‘suffering’ behaviors. One of the most common forms sounds something like this: “You’ve hurt my feelings”. In other words, I am hurting, and you did it. You are responsible; I am not.

When I tell you that you have hurt my feelings, what is it that I want to happen? I want an apology, probably. But I want something more than just words that say ‘sorry’. I also want a change in your behavior. I want you to act differently, more to my expectations. Once you change whatever you are doing that I don’t like, then I don’t have to hurt anymore. As a matter of fact, if you comply, you have just agreed to let me control you with my ‘feelings’.

Following along in this example, I find it especially interesting that at first I am admitting that the other person has controlled me (‘you’ have hurt my feelings). But then I change the whole situation around to get control of the other person by his accepting responsibility for my ‘feelings’.

[Go back over this slowly! What I am claiming is that somehow you are responsible for my behaviour. But I impute that you are entirely responsible for yours and therefore could easily choose to do otherwise!]

This is manipulation in interpersonal relationships, something that we learn to do in childhood and continue doing as long as it seems to work.

This is not the way for adults to deal with each other and unlikely to produce long term good outcomes. In effect we are trying to manipulate others by taking offense and hoping that will induce feelings of guilt in them.

This is not the way to genuine well-being. We have seen in previous essays that our well-being is promoted if we can get to:

  • Know ourselves,
  • Accept ourselves, and then
  • Forget ourselves.

By doing so we are able to get the ego out of the equation and so deal more objectively with the world.

Let me leave the last words to the inimitable Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

We must never forget, however, that the source of disturbing emotions is attachment to the self. If we want to be free of inner suffering once and for all, it is not enough to rid ourselves of the emotions themselves, we must eliminate our attachment to the ego. Is that possible? It is, because as we’ve seen the ego exists merely as a mental imputation. A concept can be dispelled, but only by the wisdom that perceives that the ego is devoid of intrinsic existence.

If you are able to attain this state, you will never take offense and you will never believe that you need an apology.

7 Replies to “Who’s Sorry Now!”

  1. Hi Ted. What about a slightly different angle on saying sorry. Assuming there is a good reason for being saddened by an action you have taken that applies personally (not a sins of your father job) and if it is genuinely pregered by ypu that something positive shpuld be dome by you then say “please forgive me”. That seems to demonstrate ones appropriate remorse and allows an opening for an adult response. Cheers Charlie

    1. Well, of course you’re right Charlie. Heaven knows how many times I’ve apologised. I guess, I was more concerned about those situations (often institutional) when one group demands an apology from another for some perceived hurt. If I apologise it is because I am motivated by my own remorse not because I am driven to guilt by the offense taken by others. And I never demand an apology from someone else, because I take responsibility for my own feelings.

  2. I have been known to bump into a chair and say sorry, Ted. Ingrained since childhood, I guess, like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when you may be neither pleased nor thankful.I agree that sins of the father should not be heaped on anyone.

    1. Well, Di, there is no great issue with you saying sorry whenever you want to. My point is that you shouldn’t affect hurt and offense and thereby expect others to apologise. Sorry I misled you!

  3. I understand the application of this philosophy. However, under this system, i wonder, should the royal commission continue? It seems helpful to the victim that their feelings are known to others (as opposed to reflected back to them as their own problem) and that the crimes are validated, and possibly punished. I understand that one of the problems that leads to mental illness, dare say suicide, is that when victims are not validated (or the crime not acknowledged), and bear all the pain in isolation. Only when the crime is acknowledged and reflected towards the perpetrator rather the back at the victim, can the victim move on and have a healthy world view.

    I accept the notion of victimhood and the dysfunction associated with it, but I also accept that the human condition does not function in isolation. Detachment from others and material things, in a way, seems to require the denial of reality. To this point I also accept that there are arguments about what constitutes reality.

    1. If the objective of the Royal Commission is to ensure our children are better protected from predatory paedophiles then of course it should continue. If the objective of the Royal Commission was to ensure that the perpetrators of those crimes apologised to their victims then I would suspect its value would be greatly diminished. If someone is led through their own genuine feelings of remorse to apologise to a victim then that should be encouraged. Nevertheless I would believe that the person who benefits most from such an apology is probably the perpetrator rather than the victim. As I have indicated in my previous two comments Matt, I am not so much against apologies as against those who confect suffering to make others feel guilty in order to manipulate them.

  4. I agree Ted. The person who gains most from an apology is the perpetrator. However if the apology results in the victim giving forgiveness then it benefits both. The greatest pain most victims feel after the event results from their own inability to forgive, forget and move on. It is the need to ruminate over it endlessly making it worse and worse in their own mind that causes most of the pain. Apologies have benefits to perpetrators but forgiveness has much greater benefit to victims. And one does not need the other. Anyone can choose to forgive and really mean it and it is a truly liberating experience.

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