In my Creative Non-Fiction class we were asked to write a piece about the fine art of something trivial. A sigh. A sneeze. The goal is to slow down and focus on the little things that make up our world. This is my piece…
The Fine Art of Apologizing
It can come in a thousand forms. It can drop from your mouth, leaving a sour taste behind. It can be whispered, the words wrenching themselves from your mouth. An apology can hurt. It can cleanse. It can mend or it can break. Saying sorry is not for the faint of heart.
An apology is a hard art to perfect. It can’t be about you. It can’t blame. It can’t make excuses. It must be cast down between two people and left to simmer. It must be honest. You can’t grovel or whine or simper. You have to admit that your mistakes affect the people around you.
The Roman Catholic Church apologized 360 years too late to Galileo. Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood barefoot in the snow for three days as an apology to the Pope. West German Chancellor Brandt knelt in Warsaw to apologize for the Holocaust. The United States has apologized for the overthrow of native Hawaiian leaders, for the Japanese internment, for slavery and syphilis studies and the treatment of Native Americans. But they refuse to apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We apologize for falling in and out of love. We apologize for bumping into one another in tight spaces. We apologize for telling lies. We apologize for breaking things and people. We apologize for being loud, being quiet, speaking our mind, talking, thinking, coughing, sneezing, breathing. There is a whole universe of apologies devoted only to semantics. We apologize for other people’s mistakes.
I learned to apologize when I was seven. A girl pushed me down into the gritty mud of a soccer field. Blinded by anger and hurt I lunged at her, planted my hands in the hollow between her shoulder blades and shoved. It took the coach’s broad hand clamped down on my shoulder for me to recite the requisite words. I’m Sorry. I learned to apologize in earnest as I got older. For breaking my mom’s trust, for not living up to my father’s expectations, for saying something that should never have been thought. It wasn’t until the soggy syllables slipped through my lips and into the growing space between me and love, that I realized sometimes sorry only goes so far. Even if you mean it.
I’m sorry that words will never be able to describe how I feel about cinnamon rolls. That some people will never get to see the sun set over the Olympic mountains and feel a deep stirring inside of them. I’m sorry that babies get cancer and die and that I broke a girl’s arm in the sixth grade. I’m sorry for all of the time that I wasted watching television, and yet I wouldn’t change it. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry that some people are allergic to chocolate. I’m sorry that I chose to work instead of watching my brother compete in a national track meet. I’m sorry that no matter how much I apologize, sometimes it doesn’t fix the break.
From downstairs, the smell of simmering pasta sauce floats up and blankets our silence. Propped against the hard ridging of the sofa, we lean into one another, hoping to say everything through our touching shoulders. An ache builds in my chest, pinching in my ribs and nipping at my lungs. I turn to him, pressing my hand against his cheek. The ruff stubble is wet with silent tears. He already knows that I wish more than anything we could make it work. But distance makes us fall apart and our ending is inevitable.
“I’m sorry.” I murmur, resting my forehead against the supple skin of his temple. As we cling to each other, I find myself dry-eyed. The heaviness in my chest dissipates. For the first time in a long time, I can breathe.
Maybe an apology is a safety valve, a release, more for ourselves than the people we give it to. Guilt builds, it eats and churns and roils and left unchecked it consumes. An apology washes clean. The words I’m sorry provide release. People always say that apologies are the first step to rebuilding relationships, regaining trust, and moving forward. They never mention how afterward every breath comes a bit easier, how the weight you hadn’t realized you’d been carrying around slides off your shoulders. How by saving our ties with others, we end up saving ourselves.