It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s gettin’ more and more absurd
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word
“Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin
This song has been rolling through my mind over the past couple of days. It’s an old favorite that’s taken on a strange poignancy this week, like I’m actually hearing the lyrics for the first time. “Sorry” may not be THE hardest word, but it’s definitely right up there.
Yet it’s never been all that difficult for me to say the words, “I’m sorry.” I say them all the time. I apologize for just about everything; my mistakes, sure, but also for simply taking up space in the world. You bump into me in a crowded supermarket aisle? I’ll say “I’m sorry” before the words escape your lips. I’ll apologize for asking for help, even if it’s a reasonable request.
When I say I’m sorry, what I’m actually saying is this: I’m in the way. I’m not good enough. I’m a problem. I’m a mistake.
I’m reminded of a scene in the film Wanted, when James McAvoy’s character meets Angelina Jolie’s character for the first time. She speaks to him brusquely, and he apologizes. She then says, “You apologize too much,” and he apologizes for that too.
That’s me. Apologizing for apologizing too much.
What’s so remarkable is, despite my penchant for apologizing, it is incredibly challenging for me to accept someone else’s apology. It doesn’t matter if the person is truly sorry, and the apology is heartfelt; I’m not buying it. Someone else’s mistake, one that necessitates an apology, just reinforces my long-held belief that other people cannot be trusted.
Of course, I don’t tell THEM that, because then everyone would know I’m not a nice person (a fate worse than death). I make a big show of accepting the apology, but I tuck the incident away like a treasure, keeping it safe for another time when it will serve me well.
After some time has passed, I take out my treasures and study them. I roll them between my palms, reminding myself of how I was hurt and betrayed. I use them to reinforce those old fears: people can’t be trusted; I’m a victim of other people’s unkindness; I deserve to be mistreated. Worse, I use them as a way of subtly punishing others for ever hurting me in the first place. A jab here, a reminder there, and I remain morally superior while keeping my emotional wounds raw and open so they never heal. As my relationships deteriorate and disappear, each incident begins to grow and shift within me until it’s bigger than all of the positive moments in my life. They’re squeezed out of the way to make space for my pain.
I really want to let this practice go. Fortunately, this past week gave me an opportunity to do that.
Someone I love made a mistake and said “I’m sorry” to me. I said, “I accept your apology.” I meant it. But this time, I also asked myself some hard questions: do I really accept the apology? Am I willing to let go of the need to hold on to this one incident? Am I willing to let go of the desire for retribution for being hurt? Do I truly and honestly forgive this person? Am I willing to move forward?
The answer to all of these questions is yes, and I was able to let go. The treasure of the relationship was more valuable than holding on to the pain. I felt so good and light and happy.
I am acutely aware that this is new territory for me, so I know I will have to let go again, and again, and again. I will have to choose to forgive, to accept “I’m sorry” and move forward. If I’m struggling, I can say a prayer. I can talk about it with someone I trust.
Remarkably (obviously?), I am also beginning to question my practice of apologizing all the time. I’m realizing it’s a form of control, trying to make sure the other person doesn’t get mad at me. I find myself considering whether I need to say it BEFORE the words come out of my mouth, rather than later on after I’ve said them. And I’ve found that most of the time, it’s okay not to say it, as long as I do say it when it’s important to do so.
“Sorry” is still a hard word for me, like the song says, but it’s losing some of its power. My heart feels lighter and more hopeful without the burden of all of those painful memories. I’m not sorry to let them go.