When I was in junior high school, the movie that all the girls went gooey eyed over was a wretched piece of schmaltz called Love Story. It starred the cutie pies of the day, the very young versions of Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw. It was most famous for the insipidly bad line, spoken by McGraw, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
I find it somehow satisfying that in the years since, O’Neal went on to become one of the biggest sleaze balls in recorded history, a major cocaine and sex addict who, at his long-time partner Farrah Fawcett’s funeral, didn’t recognize his own daughter, Tatum, as he made crude sexual advances toward her. Oops. An “I’m sorry” might have been called for at that time.
In order for apologies to be effective, they have to be sincere, and they have to be timely. In 1995, Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, publicly apologized for his part in plunging us deeper into that nightmare. Given that it was about thirty years after the fact, and the enormous toll that war extracted from us in terms of lives lost and ruined and the damage to our collective psyche, an “I’m sorry” from one of the men most responsible comes across as too little too late, ineffective at best and insincere at worst. If McNamara was worried about how he’d be remembered going forward, he’d have been better off just keeping his mouth shut and hoping he’d be forgotten.
There’s always a controversy whenever it’s suggested that we as a nation apologize to the many groups we’ve wronged over the years. Whether it’s slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, the genocide of the indigenous Americans who were here first, or for taking “The Six Million Dollar Man” off the air, there’s a lot we have to apologize for. There is value in formally recognizing the wrongs we’ve done and acknowledging our mistakes. But like all apologies, they’re worthless unless they are sincere, unless they are accompanied by changes in behavior.
On a personal level, apologizing to someone for something you’ve done can be one of the most difficult things to do. Admitting you were wrong, taking blame for your own actions, acknowledging the hurt you’ve caused, and serving time in a darkened prison cell with a demented ex-football player turned mass murderer named Leon, are never easy. It can be just as difficult to accept an apology, because you have to let go of the pain and anguish that was caused to you and loudly sqauwk like a bird.
There are different forms of apologies. The most simple, and the most sincere, are the two words, “I’m sorry.” This is much preferred to the expression that somehow became popular in the past twenty years or so, “my bad.” If someone says “my bad” to me, I’m always tempted to demand an apology for such a feeble attempt to apologize.
“I’m sorry” is actually only the beginning of an apology. It has to be followed by an explanation, such as “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cut your nose off with my weed whacker,” or, “my throwing you through a plate glass window was just an unfortunate accident.” If these examples sound insincere, it’s because most apologies are insincere, and usually occur only after the apologist was caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break into your safety deposit box and steal all of your valuable papers and scan them and post them on the internet.”
Then there are those apologies, like McNamara’s, that are motivated by a guilty conscience, and a desire for forgiveness. These apologies usually end with the phrase “can you ever forgive me?” and put the pressure on the recipient of the apology. For example, “I’m sorry I stole you car and kidnapped and lobotomized your wife so that she became my sex slave. I was high on crack cocaine at the time. Can you ever forgive me?” If the offended party replies, “No!” he risks being perceived as shallow and insensitive and guilty of holding a grudge.
.Some of history’s most famous apologies:.
A very young George Washington to his father: “Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down your Cherry Tree. But it was little Tommy Jefferson who found your stash of Colonial Girls Gone Wild videos.”
The philosopher Socrates upon being sentenced to death: “So you have deliberated and come to the conclusion that I must die. Well, excuuuuuuse meeee!”
Nathan Hale prior to being hanged: “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country. If I had three or four, Hell, even two lives to give for my country, I’d be in heck of a better mood, and I probably wouldn’t have wet myself.”
Jesus of Nazareth, on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Besides, is it really that big of a deal if they put ketchup on a hot dog?”
President Bill Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky affair: “My deepest regret is that as leader of the free world and the most powerful man on earth, I couldn’t do any better than Monica Lewinsky. John F. Kennedy had Marilyn Monroe, for cripes sake! I’ll try to do better in the future.”
A woman in a Chinese Laundry service: “My husband, some hot shot. Here’s his ancient Chinese secret …”