Tag Archives: Communication

Saying “I’m Sorry”

A brief introduction to this post: I have been thinking a lot about growth lately. After reflecting on past experiences, I have watched myself act in ways that demonstrate that I have actually learned something. This has been critical but is not always comfortable. It is difficult to put myself in a position of vulnerability, but it is also the only way that I can live up to the pictures I paint on this blog. I am grateful for what I have learned and for all who have taught me. To those who were gracious enough to give me multiple chances, to those who heard my awkward apologies, to those who looked me in the eye when looking back was the hardest thing to do: I am still sorry and I thank you.

I am sorry . . . .
if
that
but
you

I thought . . .
meant
didn’t

But you . . .
and so
it’s just

I guess . . .
next time
differently.

It can be hard to apologize. It can be hard to admit that we were wrong, that we hurt someone else, that we misunderstood or misinterpreted or made a mistake. It can be hard to acknowledge that we didn’t behave in the ways that we should have and that our behaviour was harmful.

To apologize means to stand before another person and admit to being fallible, to having erred, to being human. It means wanting to do better and, significantly, taking the steps necessary to do so. To apologize means asking for forgiveness, and asking for forgiveness, we often think, means handing someone else power.

And that is scary.

I’d like to offer something else here: Saying “I’m sorry” and then acting upon what it actually means to be sorry is not only an act of courage, but also an act of recognizing the humanity inside someone else.

Saying “I’m sorry” acknowledges that a wrong has been committed, that a relationship has the potential for being repaired, and that this is work we want to do. And we cannot do it alone.

To come together and rebuild takes not only compassion, but also grace. It takes setting aside ego and hierarchy and control and everything that separates us, and requires us to sit down together and acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, that being human can hurt and that humans cause hurt.

Saying “I’m sorry” recognizes that maybe we are too far gone, and that maybe the gulf is too wide to cross again. Maybe the trust that was once between us has shattered into too many pieces to reconstruct. Saying “I’m sorry” admits that this might be possible.

And this is scary.

But it also might be the only way to move on, even if we aren’t moving on in the ways that we’d hoped. Sometimes life goes that way.

Given that our current cultural obsession with the self has created personalized environments in which each individual is at the centre, it is no wonder considering another perspective is challenging. After all, there are no other perspectives. It is no wonder that discourse and dialogue are anathema. After all, we “cancel” those with whom we disagree. To change one’s mind, which is what happens when we learn, is to flip-flop; to apologize is to capitulate, roll over, show weakness.

There is a great deal wrong here.

A genuine, heartfelt apology carries with it the possibility of making the world a better place. It is an act of building peace in our interactions, relationships, and everyday encounters. This is a powerful thing. No one ever said something so important was easy, though it might be easier than we think. Many things are this way when approached with honesty and openness rather than suspicion and competition.

Sometimes we are wrong, but we can mend those wrongs. This does not mean the harm disappears, or that everything goes back to the way it was before. It means that we forge new paths and learn new ways. We are marked by our experiences, and this is how our lives are constructed.

Treat others the way you want to be treated, or the way they might want to be treated.
Be kind.
Take a deep breath.
Do the hard thing.
Hold out your hand.

If we continue building this world into a better place, there will be someone there to take it.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021

Hints

I have just done a rare thing, which is why it bears mention: I have just made a second cup of coffee.

This is strange for me. My coffee drinking habits are pretty simple – a cup in the morning. Maybe a cup in the afternoon on the weekends if I’m reading or writing in a café, or if I’m meeting a friend. There were some mornings at my previous school where a coffee connoisseur department mate would offer me a cup and, depending on the status of my first cup, I might accept. He really did make delicious coffee. I’ve been on enough school trips to know that I’m just fine without it, but I so enjoy the ritual of a cup of coffee in the morning. And I just made a second.

I’m thinking.

I’m thinking about loss, about learning, and about where I might be getting things wrong even while I’m trying hard (maybe this is the problem) to do everything right.

I’m thinking about a colleague-turned-friend, and I’m wondering if that’s where I got it wrong. Maybe we remained colleagues. Maybe that’s where it ended. Maybe “keep in touch and don’t be a stranger” fell short of genuine. Or maybe not. Maybe life has gotten in the way, maybe there’s a long to-do list full of weightier priorities, maybe no one is counting weeks except me because it’s my world that has changed.

Or maybe I just can’t take a damn hint. There’s that possibility, too. Maybe I went wrong somewhere and unresponsiveness is a tap on the shoulder. I haven’t ruled that out.

This leads me to once upon a time, over four years ago now, when I was (according to me, at least) abundantly explicit about a specific set of choices. And I know someone who was clearly shocked when I proceeded to do exactly as I had said. Maybe I hadn’t been as clear as I thought, or maybe actions and words were misaligned, or maybe I was that clear. Maybe I did do the right things, and maybe the message just wasn’t received by someone who didn’t want to receive it.

The mind and heart must remain open if we’re going to understand what others have to say, even if we don’t like it.

The brain is protective. It hides us from things we don’t like, especially those that threaten our self-esteem. It makes extensive use of quick, intuitive thinking (System 1, for fans of Tversky and Kahneman) to get us through most situations. We get into trouble when a specific set of circumstances actually requires slower, more rational thought than our brains, wired for efficiency and avoidant of hard work, are willing to give it.

So I made another cup of coffee. I am trying to slow down and think. (We could address the irony of this substance – a stimulant – as a means of slowing down to think, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

The danger of thinking, in this case, is overthinking. Am I thinking too much when the best way to be is to just be and let life unfold? Am I thinking too much because I don’t want to get this wrong, because I don’t want to feel sad, because I don’t want to be in the position of wondering how, with the information I had, I could have understood differently? Maybe. I haven’t ruled it out.

In some ways, impulsivity has been beaten out of me. This could be an effect of age or experience, and is likely a combination of age and experience (they are, after all, positively correlated). But my sister has long cautioned me against my tendency towards over-caution and in this sense, I think she’s right. Numerous inspirational quotes spring to mind here but a simple question suffices: “What do you have to lose?”.

If being who I am raises eyebrows, I’m not going to gain anything by being someone else. If trying, with the best of intentions, to be honest about that is objectionable, at least I’ve given it a chance. It’s hard to be someone else; I’ve tried.

With the coffee almost done, I can report that I’ve concluded nothing. But I can also rest assured (at least, according to my brain that is designed to protect me) that I have acted in the best ways that I could. And if that’s not good enough, or if that’s not preferable in the given context, there is nothing else I would have honestly done. To act differently would have been a lie. It is possible I made a mistake, or two or twenty, but that happens. That is bound to happen. Mistakes come from trying and while I might not like the result, at least I have tried.

Weimar, Germany – August 2021

Happy

The limits of my language means the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

I am usually lukewarm about the word “happy”, or at least how it’s used in much of the Western world. There was always something about it that bothered me and I didn’t quite know what it was until I read Lisa Feldman Barrett’s highly informative and very engaging book, How Emotions Are Made. She explained that “happy” in Western parlance is “happy happy joy joy” as in, no worries and all is perfect. In the Eastern world, however, the goal is to be content and equanimous rather than happy.

The different cultural perspectives on the emotion “happy”, as well as many others, have helped me a great deal. In one of the courses that I teach, Theory of Knowledge, we have a unit on knowledge and language in which we address the role that language plays in knowledge creation. A really useful activity is to ask students about terminology – anything from slang and colloquialism to idioms and full translations in other languages – that they cannot quite translate into English. It’s enlightening to see how much of what we “know” is contained in our ability to express it. And if our language lacks an idea, can we still know it? Compelling questions.

For example, if you asked me what I was looking for in a partner, I’d rattle off a series of adjectives, two of which are in Yiddish**. Some people would hear this and nod approvingly and others would lose interest as I started looking for the corresponding descriptions in English to convey the meaning. But if I didn’t have these words, would I be as conscious of looking for these attributes?

Even without knowing other languages, anyone who has gone outside of their hometown has likely experienced a moment of confusion when asking for something that goes by a different name elsewhere. “Soda” vs. “pop” for example. In university, a dinnertime game in the first few weeks was “What do you call . . . ” in which we learned different regional colloquialism for such words. For travellers, a similar hostel game is “What does this animal say?”, which I last played around a fire in a freezing family home in northern Vietnam.

Gezellig is a Dutch word that I think should exist in more languages because then perhaps the concept would exist, as per Wittgenstein. I first learned this word from Feldman Barrett’s book and then heard it while talking with a bartender in Amsterdam. This word means cozy and nice, and also refers to time spent with friends. A concept in Singlish is kampong spirit. Kampong is the Malay word for a rural village, so kampong spirit refers to the helpful attitudes people in a certain place exhibit towards each other, whether friends or strangers. I’ve heard my climbing gym described as having a kampong feel, and I do believe it does.

Regardless of the term that best fits, I know how I felt during my family’s Passover seder today. I joined the Saturday evening seder on Sunday morning here in Singapore, which brought together my immediate family and grandparents with some friends and some of their families. I experienced the gamut of emotions over several hours and I was glad to notice and label them. It helps me think. I was also glad (another emotion? different? how?) to be there with everyone. Passover last year was right about the time when Covid took a turn for the worse here and we’re in a very different place this year. I am thankful for that. And without Covid, we would not have had this seder together and I am filled with golden bubbles that we did.


**heymish – used to describe a person (or place) with a cozy, comfortable, non-pretentious attitude or vibe
mensch – used to describe a truly honourable, decent person

Coney Island, Singapore – April 2020