A long time ago, before I had a husband or a house full of children, I taught high school. It was simultaneously one of the most rewarding and stressful times of my life. I took my job as teacher very seriously. I worked in a Catholic High School where, thankfully, I was truly able to live my faith freely. So, naturally, lesson plans were rooted in my faith, as was my entire classroom environment.
I am fairly certain that’s when I actively started teaching the art of the apology. Girls argued about hurt feelings or snubs. Boys were ready to verbally and/or physically fight over a girl or feeling challenged. When I encouraged them to talk it out and then apologize to each other, it was always the same: “Sorry.”
Sorry is just a word.
I think if my children repeat anything “mom said all the time,” it will be that phrase. Sorry is just a word. Because it is. Like any word in the English language, it has no value, power, or meaning unless used and owned. Kill. Love. Sad. They all have no emotional meaning until they are owned and used properly.
He was killed last night.
That child looks so sad.
I love you.
Our hearts feel those words in a myriad of ways. The first sentence rends our hearts, whether or not we know the man who was killed. How? Did he have a family? He’s gone! That child–why is she sad? A person would have to be truly heartless not to feel pain at a sad child. And, “I love you.” Quite possibly one of the most powerful sentences in the English language.
When we own our feelings, whether fearfully or proudly, we become vulnerable. Our words suddenly have power and meaning. In stating any of our thoughts or feelings, we expose parts of ourselves, and this can be painful and scary. Brene Brown discusses this in-depth in her book Daring Greatly. She defines vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (34). When I first read that, I found myself initially disagreeing with her definition until I gave it some thought.
My husband is the only man I have dated. When I met him, I was 23; I had never held a man’s hand, kissed a man, or had given my heart to anyone. I had safely stored it away inside, where it was safe. When we started dating seriously, I was unnerved. I had to open myself up, slowly, and let him in. The uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure was absolutely terrifying. So was the night he told me for the first time, “I love you,” along with our first disagreement.
Vulnerability has a bad connotation now. It’s seen as weakness, cowardly, and shameful. So, instead, people disengage. After all, isn’t it safer and less scary if we just build walls and keep others out? Sure–until we realize we are losing out on the power and depth of human connection. Then we find ourselves isolated and lonely with no idea as to how to connect with others.
We apologize like this because we are afraid. We fear admitting we might have done something wrong; that we just might be imperfect. We are scared of admitting we have feelings and can be hurt or are capable of hurting those around us. We are terrified of putting ourselves at the mercy of others, especially the mercy of someone we have hurt. So, we spit out a word, failing to own our actions or expose ourselves to human connection.
When I became a mother and my children were old enough to hurt one another, one of the most anticipated parts of motherhood began: refereeing. Or, conflict mediation. Most days it just feels like refereeing. I began helping my children express their feelings, especially the child who had been maligned. Then, I would ask the other to apologize. “Sorry.”
That’s how it started. I encouraged them to own their failings. I messed up, I hurt you, I’m sorry. So, I’d emphasize the I’m, explaining the importance of responsibility for our actions and finishing it off with, “Sorry is just a word. It’s I’m sorry.” I’d explain that the feelings of the hurt person were valid; their anger, sadness, and desire for justice all stem from being violated in some way. However, the feelings of the other child, the sorrow, anguish, and frustration, were valid as well.
Even the Bible tells us that all feelings are valid, neither morally wrong or right, and that we should let ourselves feel them. “Be angry, and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your anger” (Eph 4:26). Sacred Scripture just told us to be angry! God fashioned us with emotion, and we are made in His image and likeness. Even Jesus swept through the temple overturning tables in anger. However, the way in which we choose to manifest these emotions is where morality plays in. We must constructively handle our emotions with charity. “A mild answer breaketh wrath: but a harsh word stirreth up fury” (Prov 15:1). We must constructively process and communicate our feelings with charity, or we provoke fury and offend our loved ones.
My children now know that in our house, we apologize properly: “I’m sorry.” Conversely, I’m also instilling in them the power and necessity of both giving and receiving forgiveness: “I forgive you.” As a result, something interesting happened recently while teaching my rather sassy four-year old how and why we apologize. I accidentally hurt her while getting her dressed one day. While she cried and I felt the guilt mounting, I said contritely, “Sorry.” She stopped crying and said very simply to me, “Mommy. It’s not ‘sorry.’ It’s Iiiiii’m sorry.” In teaching my children the power of a profuse, real apology I learned I was not living my own teachings. My husband and I now make a concerted effort to apologize properly both to one another and to our children (though, because of the four-year old, the only acceptable apology must be, “Iiiiii’m sorry.”)
True apologies and personal forgiveness are so vital in healthy human relationships and connectedness. In teaching them the art of the apology and forgiveness, I’m teaching them–and myself–to be vulnerable and that vulnerability is beautiful and necessary. In exchange for opening ourselves up to the mercy and love of one another, we gain acceptance, love, and human connectedness. And that, hopefully, will aid my children in forming true, deep human relationships and maybe change the world, a little at a time.