Why Is Apology So Strange?

“I screwed up.”

No, I didn’t really screw up. At least, not in any way that I believe I owe you all an apology.

It’s an expression. It’s something many of us say every day.

Learning to apologize is a key value of a mature adult human being. But to hear the screaming headlines in this morning’s papers, you would think President Obama saying “I screwed up” was the most horrible admission a President could ever make.

I missed going through the paper before I left this morning, because I had to meet somebody pretty early for coffee. But on my way out of the Starbucks, I noted the *huge* 48-point type headlines on the front page:

“Obama: I Screwed Up”

I thought, “Good Lord! What has he done?! Did he send somebody our nuclear launch codes via his Blackberrry? What?!! What?!!”

Turns out, it had to do with the whole Daschle matter. Obama was taking responsibility for the way the matter had been handled.

But, to read the headlines, you’d think he’d committed some irredeemable act. Some horrible moral transgression.

No. Not really. Just the matter of his nominees for certain cabinet level positions.

I don’t mean to minimize the fault here, but it’s not punching the wrong button on the Red Phone. It’s not sending $500 billion in bailout money to a bank account in the Caymans.

I wonder, then, what does Obama’s apology says to us?

More specifically, I wonder what it says to us about us?

My hunch is that it says this:
a) We’re not use to it in a President, so it’s hard to get used to, and
b) We’re still not that good at making, accepting, or processing apologies…whomever makes them.

When I was a kid, “Love Story” was a big movie. I didn’t see it, I just heard the schmaltzy soundtrack songs, and knew it was generally being discussed around me.

The ethos of “Love Story” was this:

Love is never having to say you’re sorry.

As a kid, I assumed the adults who came up with this line knew what they were talking about. They were adults, after all. Weren’t adults always right?

Um….No!

Love is saying you’re sorry a LOT. A hell of a lot. Love is apologizing every time you realize that you’ve screwed up.

Better than even the word “love,” though, would be the word “Maturity.”

Maturity is saying “I screwed up.”

Maturity is taking responsibility for ones actions.

Maturity is being able to say such things publicly, when it’s called for.

Maturity is learning from those mistakes, and not making the same mistakes twice, where ever possible.

My hunch is, though, that the act of apology is still something many of us struggle with. It’s hard, even with those closest to us. It’s especially hard in work situations, where our jobs might be on the line.

And further than this, almost all of us have been in the uncomfortable position of making an apology that goes UNaccepted. That can make us feel angry. It can make us feel confused and even more guilty.

Point is, we don’t do it well. And many of us still tend to count it as a kind of moral weakness. We have DNA code in us that teaches us to pounce on the weak, for the sake of the strong. Apology looks like (but is not) weakness.
And so, we pounce.

To wit, a Google search of the phrase “I screwed up” right now yields more than 6,000 news results!!! All about this admission from Obama.

After the apology comes the public flogging, right? Seems that’s what some are hoping for here.

Well, I liked it. I liked that Obama apologized. I find it a refreshing change. But I’m more than mildly pissed that it made it into 48-point headlines in the Dallas Morning News.

Of course, there was a time when folks apologized for almost everything all the time. Under the old Catholic system of confession, parishioners would slink into a small room and bear their hearts to an anonymous priest.

Kids tended to confess even the smallest of “sins,” to the point which it almost seemed like they were apologizing for being kids!

But as someone who has grown up without that kind of mechanized system of apology, I often wonder what the lack of it does for us. Because, it seems now that apology is a lost art…almost its own kind of taboo.

We’ve swung the pendulum from the time when everybody felt guilty for everything they did, to a time when nobody even knows how to apologize, even if they wanted to.

And nobody knows what to do with one we somebody gives one to us.

Which is better?

Probably something in the middle.

But I, for one, am dang pleased to have a President who is willing to use the words “I screwed up,” regardless of context.

The fact that he’s will to use them is the main point. We should all learn to use them more often.

And we should all spend some time of the question: What does it mean that we still find apology so strange?

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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