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Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly

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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Who knows why, but I’ve been reflecting about apologizing lately.

Actually, I know only too well why this subject has been on my mind. Of all the people I could name who have constant reason to say “I’m sorry,” I hold a commanding lead in my own personal polling. I’m sure I’ll remain the frontrunner.

I know there’s been some buzz in the news recently about the subject of public apology, but to be honest, I know I can’t be focused on that ahead of my own personal need to improve.

Trying to focus on relationship rather than religiosity and not sound too churchy, let me say I believe we’re all called basically to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly. Consistently doing the right — or just — thing and keeping a humble attitude is really hard for me, but I have no trouble whatsoever placing a high value on mercy. I believe, with Shakespeare, that the quality of mercy is not constrained or forced but rather “drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath,” and I’m everlastingly grateful that I receive so much grace from God and others instead of getting what I truly deserve.

But of course if I hope to receive mercy from others and have them “give me a break,” so to speak, I have to be ready not only to extend mercy myself but to show proper remorse, which begins with saying, “I’m sorry.”

The mental outline I try to follow — with spotty success — is to say, in so many words, “I’m sorry; I was wrong; please forgive me.” I usually don’t have much trouble with the feeling contrite part or with asking to be forgiven (due to lots of practice), but admitting I was wrong is always a challenge.

What if I’m asked or expected to apologize in some rare instance in which I genuinely don’t feel I was wrong? In that case, I believe it’s appropriate to slightly alter a straightforward admission of wrongdoing to something like, “I’m so sorry. It was surely not my intention to hurt or wrong you, but I can see that my words or actions have done so, and I ask you to please forgive me for that.”

I think these general principles apply not only in our private lives but in diplomacy, in business and in all of the co-equal branches of public service at the state or national level. I know there are plenty of people whose mantra is, “Never apologize, never explain,” but do you really want to work or serve with any of them for long?

Apologies between one nation and another are usually more formal and nuanced, of course, and are ordinarily more a matter of accepting responsibility rather than an expression of genuine humility or remorse, but in some instances, just about every variety of sincere apology has its place. In civil legal disputes, naturally, apologies are more complicated in that they can be interpreted as an admission of guilt and, thus, financial liability. In criminal court, unfortunately, apologies are almost always limited to the sentencing phase in an attempt to lessen one’s punishment.

What if a call or demand for an apology is also clearly part of a premeditated attack? I readily admit I’ve never been in that situation. I hope I would try not to highlight any ulterior motives, leaving that for my attacker to wrestle with, and would promptly apologize – letting the chips fall where they may.

It’s mighty easy to say or think I would do that: it’s quite another to know I would do it.

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