When you’ve done the wrong thing, you know it, and you’re going to commit to not making the same mistake again.
I mean, the first bits are the most likely, but if the last is probably the important part. Often the English habit is to apologise for anything and everything, whether or not the details of the sleight inflicted are unknown or even intended. This is most noticeable on crowded streets, where a chorus of sorries will be delivered, contrapuntally in all directions, as furiously busy people barge others out of the way.
There’s even a tendency to apologise when someone has done you wrong. The apology becomes a blanket social interaction. Automatically polite, although without any thought for what has been done to either party.
It’s a weird social habit.
As a thought experiment recently, I wondered what would happen if when people were apologising for making their way through a crowd, or making those other series of apologies, instead of saying sorry they said thank you.
It makes sense. Normally you are apologising for getting in someone’s way, so thanking them for allowing you too makes sense. Instinctively though, we sense an arrogance. A thank you is assuming entitlement, assuming you already have had permission when you haven’t. Sorry is apologising for not asking permission, whilst knowing that you don’t have to. It’s more deflecting, but somehow more polite. There’s no real response to someone apologising for something small and ridiculous, even if they’ve just blocked your view of the band completely.
Politeness is a weird thing.
To return to the original point though, this is just social graces (or parodies thereof), this is not about real apologies.
Apologies are close to the nub of one of the grand problems of philosophy, one that burns to my core and frustrates and upsets on a regular basis.
What do we do when we have done something wrong?
Justice is an odd thing. We have criminal systems based on locking people away when they have done something deemed wrong by the laws given soveriegnty by society, but we don’t question whether this makes a difference. It never remedies the initial problem, it debatably acts as a deterrent, but it also has a tendency to rehabilitate people further into crime, rather than away from it.
But then, you need to do something to people who have done wrong? Right? How else do you keep a society going?
It’s an immense question, I’m not going to go into.
Even more disturbing, is what do you do internally? You can apologise to people, but it never takes back what has happened. You can’t fix the past, even with the most honest and full hearted apology.
So what do you do?
I don’t know. I don’t know at all. The closest answer I can give is that you make yourself anew, and become someone who would never make the same mistakes. That’s the important part of the apology.
And I hope it’s enough.
Illustration by Helen