Seeing past "I’m sorry"

There is a well-known Hasidic parable in which a King, after fighting with his son, exiles him from his kingdom. Years later, the King’s heart softens, and he sends his ministers to ask his son to return. The son still resents his father deeply and rejects the invitation. 
Upon hearing this, the king tells his ministers to bring his son the following message: “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to meet you.”

Nowhere does the king say the words “I’m sorry” to his son. Nowhere does he, technically, apologize. The king moves forward from his side of their rift not by feigning remorse to appease his son, but by choosing to remain open for reconciliation and reconnection. 
Through this parable, I’ve come to realize the absence of a formal apology may be the most powerful way to restore relationships. 

Several Rosh Hashanahs ago, a close relative who was visiting made an offhand comment about how I looked like I’d gained “the freshman fifteen.” I quickly changed the subject (silently patting myself on the back for my maturity) and carried on chopping the apples and spooning the honey into a dish. But as we were taking the challah out of the oven, another comment of the same nature came out. My bottled up resentment exploded: “Can we focus on something else besides my appearance, please?”—my voice dripping with teenage sass. 

My relative was taken aback by my lack of grace and left the room in silence. I knew as I watched her leave (and, to be honest, even as the comment came out of my mouth) that I had grossly overreacted. And for the next four long days, I would receive my just desserts: the good old-fashioned silent treatment.

Every day, I ventured to test my relative’s commitment. I looked her in the eyes to ask her a benign question about her day or about her thoughts on politics. She’d reliably look away and pretend I wasn’t in the room. This routine quickly became theatre of the absurd.
When her train departed at the end of the visit, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Neither of us had even said goodbye.

A few days later, my mother wisely suggested I apologize. I called the relative and offered a meek, “I’m sorry for snapping at you,” while preparing myself for what surely ought to follow: her heartfelt apology to me over her hurtful comments. 

Instead, I received a nearly fifteen-minute monologue about how courageous I was, and how even though I had reacted terribly, what was important is that I apologized. Her words were heartfelt; she was choosing to see my gesture toward reconciliation as pure and genuine. But I still wanted an apology. 

I kept trying to sneak in something like, “Can you see why maybe my snapping at you was justified?” Or, “Don’t you think you do overly criticize me?” Or even, “Don’t you think it was slightly ridiculous that you gave me the silent treatment for four days?”

She did not take the bait. Instead, she continually interjected to thank me for my vulnerability.

Fraught with frustration, I hung up the phone, wishing I had never called in the first place. 

From a young age, we learn there is a certain level of people-pleasing involved in saying “I’m sorry.” We say we’re sorry when our teacher tells us we should apologize to our classmate whose snack we ate. We say we’re sorry when our parents tell us we should apologize to our teacher for misbehaving during class. 

Saying “sorry” is conditioned into our vocabulary as a means to an end. Although awkward and uncomfortable, employing the word, regardless of our sincerity, is just what we’re supposed to do. 

It is a way to make whatever we did go away (or at least to get the adults off our backs). Even if we are truly remorseful for what we have done, apologizing is more of an interpersonal tool, with no purpose in truly serving a relationship. Saying “sorry” is something to get over with.

I entered into that phone call for my relative to see the situation the way I saw it and to receive the apology to which I felt entitled. Although I technically uttered a formal apology, I had done nothing on my end to truly take accountability for the part I played in our squabble. My apology was nothing more than a thinly disguised agenda to force the resolution on my own terms. I was on a mission to receive.

In Harriet Lerner’s renowned book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, she writes that “real intimacy can account for seeing things differently.” 
When both parties fully see and value each other they can deliver grievances through various forms of expression. It is not about making someone accept how we see things, but about being empathetic to each other’s experiences. 

I may never find the empathy I yearn for, even from those I love, but I cannot use it as an excuse to give up doing the work from my side of a rift, in my “kingdom.”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to repent and apologize to those we have wronged. It is the time to take stock of the previous year and decide how to move through the next one. Apologizing is supposed to be integral to bringing in the Jewish New Year, yet if we value our connections enough, the formal transaction of the apology is trivial. A sincere apology is challenging because it addresses the work that needs to be done. 

In the Hasidic parable, the king does not demand his son’s forgiveness or even expect a conversation about their argument. He does not explain his side of the story, defend himself, or ask for his son to take accountability for his actions. Instead, the King does the difficult work of extending a gesture that allows his son to repair their relationship on his own terms. The King allows his son to do as much as he can and shows he is willing to do the rest of the work himself.

I wish I could have shared a moment similar to this with my close relative. 
The apology itself is not work, it’s just a step in the process. If there’s anything this time of isolation has taught me, our relationships are worth the work.

Header design image by Orly Zebak. 

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