If most of you are like me, you’re at least aware that there’s a TV show on called “My Name Is Earl.”
Of course, if most of you are like me, I’m sorry it’s been so long since you bedded a saucy wench. I don’t do enough bedding of saucy wenches. Trust me.
Anyway, the premise of the show, for those who aren’t like me (and I wish you’d stop hogging the saucy wenches), is that there’s a man who wins $100,000 in the lottery and realizes that his life would be better if he started doing things for people. So he makes a list of everyone he’s wronged in his life, and spends his winnings trying to make up for the things he did wrong.
Now, while I’ve never stolen a car from a one-legged girl (yeah, that was on the show), there are most definitely things that I’ve done for which I really owe people apologies. From stealing a nutrition bar (fine, bars) from a former roommate to deliberately hurting the feelings of people I care greatly about to breaking a few of the Ten Commandments (Want to do something that's fun? Try honoring your father or mother), there are things that I regret in life.
I’m sure I’m not alone. At least I’d hate to think I was, or you guys are all asses. We’ve all done things to others that we regret. Sometimes because of the way it made us feel, sometimes because of the way it made them feel. Movies are rife with people getting a second chance to right the wrongs they've done, or to undo something done, or to get to go back in time and do them again, only differently.
I'm not talking about things we simply regret doing. Sure, if I'd known that I'd lose my glasses in the Lehigh River, I would have left them on the bank. I'm talking about the things that we regret doing to others.
Now, this is not me getting on my high horse and handing down truisms like fortune cookies (I got one the other day that read: you are not illiterate). I'm not going to get preachy, nor am I going to use this as a public pulpit from which to confess my own sins against humanity.
That's all. Have a great month.
No, I'm kidding.
What I'm actually on about today is that my curiosity is a bit piqued regarding regret. I mean, we can't regret every time we've hurt someone, right? Hell, I'm sure I don't remember every single time. Though I do feel bad about blaming Tim Bradley for breaking the egg on the counter in home ec when I'm the one that really did it. But I do wonder what motivates us to apologize in certain circumstances, but not others?
Some would argue it's just a question of pragmatism. You apologize when you have something to gain from the apologee (?) or something to lose by not apologizing. I'm sure that is a motivation in certain relationships. If you call your boss a "pig-shit covered asshat" at the Christmas party, that's both regrettable and probably warrants an "I'm sorry, Sir" come Monday. Or even the all-too-common "I probably shouldn't have told my best friend's girlfriend that her hair looked like she was in a Flowbee accident. He might not take me to Spain with him now," scenario is mainly punishment/reward motivated.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Being human, we're at the mercy of nature and instincts and really stupid impulses. We're hurtful and emotional and callous and cruel. And when people tell you to "go with your gut," they can ofttimes be very, very wrong. So an apology will go a long way toward cleaning up some of those unfortunate messes. Because "I'm sorry for saying that" can sometimes be hard to muster up, but it beats "Would you like fries with that?" every single time.
What really interests me, as an observer of the human condition (not to be confused with the "human conditioner" -- never buy Soylent Green Shampoo), are those times when we regret something we've done not because of the impact it had on our lives, but because of the impact it had on the life of the person against whom we transgressed. There have been -- thankfully -- few times in my life when I've looked in someone else's eyes and seen written there the hurt that I caused. But each one of those times is indelibly written into my memory. And every time I picture the circumstances, I get that "feeling in the pit of your stomach" feeling.
I'm not saying that I'm a wonderful person for feeling bad. ("Hey, everyone, a Jew who feels guilty about something!") I'm saying that I'm sure you all have moments like that, too. There's a "Simpsons" episode where Lisa announces on TV that she doesn't like Ralph Wiggum, and Bart points out on the video "You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half." It's funny because it's true. And it's heartbreaking because it's true.
Cynics would claim that in these situations, making restitution, either verbally or through some action would be solely to help one feel better, ease the guilt, or just try to avoid an unpleasant situation down the line.
I like to think they'd be wrong.
I know that, for myself, the movie in my mind really does make me feel awful about my actions. And I really do want to express to the person(s) I've hurt how sorry I am. I also know it usually doesn't do any good. Well, I guess it does more good than not apologizing, but while an apology takes all of about a minute (five minutes if you're really verbose or just talk kinda slow), hurt endures.
I also know from being on the receiving end of both the hurt and the ensuing apology that it's not easy to let go of the anger. In "My Name Is Earl," everything generally gets tied up nicely in a half-hour (except the one-legged girl; she's still angry), but life's not really like that, unfortunately. No matter how heartfelt the apology, it never takes back the original transgression.
There's a parable that's told on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur about a boy who constantly says malicious things about people. Some rabbi or another (whomever he was, he was wise) tells him that in order to atone for his sins, he has to take a feather pillow, spread its contents into the wind, and come back the next day. Of course the boy comes back and the rabbi says he now has to collect all of the feathers he let loose the previous day. The boy says, "What you talkin' about, Rabbi." Or something like that. It's a metaphor, obviously. I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt in grasping its meaning for yourself.
What I'm saying is that we all know that just saying "I'm sorry" doesn't automatically make everything better. The same way that my mom kissing my knee when I scraped it as a child didn't actually make the pain go away (sorry mom; I was faking that I was cured). I think we lose sight of that, though. We've all both heard and said "I said I was sorry, can't you just drop it," enough times that we should be aware that's not how emotions work. That said, we also keep watching Keanu Reeves films in the hopes that he hasn't ruined another one. Shame on all of us, perhaps.
And yet we still do it. I like to believe in the positive aspects of human nature; sometimes we really try to make up for our negative actions solely because we know we owe it to that person for what we've done. Sure, there's a level of guilt that eases from the act of saying sorry, but I can't help but feel that's not the primary motivation. Maybe I'm naive, but I'd rather be repeatedly hurt by everyone I've ever met than become so cold and cynical that I never let anyone get close enough to do so.
At least I think I would. If it actually happens that everyone I've ever met repeatedly hurts me, well, at that point being cynical might be the least of my worries.
I guess what I'm saying is that we're all going to hurt one another at some point. And we're all going to be hurt. And we're all going to want to make it all better. And we're all going to laugh and laugh and laugh.
Well, maybe not that last part. Getting back to "Earl," the whole point of the show is that Karma helps him out when he does something selfless and punishes him when he hurts someone else for personal gain. The world might be a better place if it really did work like that (this is not to discount Karma; it's just that it's a lot less subtle on the show). But in my mind, as long as people do try to make amends for - and learn from - their actions, unselfishly, and as long as they do mean "I'm sorry" when they are, well, the world might still be pretty all right.
And if I'm wrong, well, my bad. And I'm sorry.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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11.7.06 @ 11:58a
From an e-mail I just received:
"...how to accept an apology. Do you say "no problem"? Even if it really was a problem that you ran over the back of my heal with your grocery cart? Do you say "I forgive you"? Or does that sound snotty? What about "It will be okay, just give me some time to forget what an asshat you are"? Then do you later have to say sorry to what you originally said to their sorry? My sister always says 'Okay' when you apologize to her.....like she's neither accepting or declining my apology. It's some pretty cold shit to throw at somebody when they say they are sorry...but at the same time when you are the one throwing it?..."
11.7.06 @ 3:08p
Mia Culpa - You can NEVER go back. Once the pebble is dropped in the water the ripples can't be stoped or reversed. You see, if you goof and hurt someone or intentionally do something that gained you position or reward it is impossible to undo the transgression. The hurt doesn't stop at the reciever of the initial misery. There are unstoppable ripples as the pain bounces through that person to whomever he/she might touch when the hurt and adjunctive emotion is stongest.
Stephen King wrote a series called the "Tower" where the characters interacted through universes that transected different periods of 'earth worlds' as their quest continued. The character known as the Gunslinger noted when they came to a juncture that, "The world had moved on."
Have you ever tried to go back to a time you fondly remembered only to find the pleasure was secreted in your memory?...a teacher, old friend, place - perhaps. None was the same. The world had moved on.
The sorrow of past misdeeds is only in our own heads and our wishes to correct those long-ago hurts are best salved in our dreams.
11.10.06 @ 8:05a
I'm convinced that if everybody could put into practice all that stuff you said, the world would, indeed, be a better place.