The icon of cool during my childhood was the Fonz on the sit-com, Happy Days. He was pretty relatable though whenever he tried to apologize. The phrase would not fully form on his lips. He’d say, “I was wu-wu-wuh.” Eventually, the word “wrong” came out. It’s even harder to say the follow three words all in a row: I am sorry. Here are a couple of ways we tend to wimp out of it.
I have to disagree with Elton John in his song, “‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Just saying “sorry” can be weak. I remember hearing a wise, old secretary confronting a cocky young executive. He had offended her by being impatient and rude. With gentleness, the woman objected and the young man said, “Sorry.”
Her response took a lot of courage. She asked, “Who is sorry?” Respectfully she suggested a true apology takes three words: “I am sorry.” If the sentence lacks an “I,” then the apology may lack a person. A flippant single-word apology is usually just a checked box, an impersonal way just to move on.
Worse than the monosyllabic “sorry” is when someone says to you, “I’m sorry… (wait for it) but….“ An apology with a “but” completely loses credibility. Taking responsibility is painful. It’s tempting to use blame to shift some of the pain or at least share it. Misery loves company.
Don’t be a sorry-but. Be bold. Take the hit. Keep your explanation separate or it will come across as an excuse. It helps to think of every conflict as two different subjects. One subject is your complaint. The other subject is the complaint against you. Don’t change the subject to yours in the middle of your apology about theirs.
What’s so difficult about putting all three words together– I + am + sorry? Why is it painful? Because we all have a built-in need to be righteous. Righteousness is not a word we use every day. We tend to think of it as something super-spiritual or holier than thou. On a practical level though, to be righteous is to be at peace– to be content living in your own skin.
In scripture the word for righteous is often associate with weights and measures. Merchants sometimes would rig their scales in order to cheat their customers. To feel shame of being unrighteous is to reveal the gap between what we appear to be and what we really are. It’s to be exposed as less weighty than we think of ourselves.
The courage to own your percent
The way to apologize is to own 100% of your percent by naming that gap. Find something in a conflict you genuinely can own, even if it’s only 10 percent. Then take 100% responsibility for it. When you do, then two things tend to happen. First, you lose the burden of maintaining your own righteousness. That’s exhausting anyway. Second, you invite the other person into that same freedom, to own their percent. If they’re capable and willing, then your apology, even in the midst of humility can become something unexpected: leadership.
If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose,” Gal. 2:21).