OPINION: We seem to have forgotten how to clean up a mess of our own making and genuinely say sorry.
A kid can pick up some handy information in Catholic school. The words to heartening songs. An understanding that human worth is inherent, unyoked to public accolades. The power of service over the power of self-gratification.
A kid can pick up some not-so-handy information in Catholic school, too, but let’s save that discussion for another essay.
One of the most useful things Catholic school taught me is the fundamental structure of apology. Whether or not you accept the notion of original sin in its most literal sense — I don’t — it’s impossible not to notice that we’re all born with a powerful inclination for fault and failure. We lie. We treat others unkindly. We nurture wrongheaded notions because they make us feel a little bit better about our imperfect selves. Roman Catholic catechism calls this tendency “the sinful condition,” but here in the 21st century, it’s more usefully known as being born a human being.
We live in the Age of Outrage, a time when any public act of poor judgment is met with public fury. (Think of the case of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet.) That first round of fury is followed swiftly by more fury as new voices defend the pilloried one. Tweet something stupid, and it must follow as the night the day that Twitter will erupt with partisan howls on every possible side, right on up to the aggrieved tweeter in chief, who is clearly thriving in the Age of Outrage.
One problem with the electronic whipping post is that people, no matter how patently flawed themselves, are disinclined to allow a flawed but truly remorseful person the room it takes to reform. A much bigger problem, though, lies with the offenders themselves, whose apologies ring hollow because they almost always involve some variety of self-justification.
To be fair, a social media feed or press release is hardly a window to the soul. But among the higher profile cases, there is plenty to suggest that almost no one in public life knows what it means to be truly remorseful. Or at least how to express remorse.
Here is what Ms. Barr said about her tweet last week: “It was 2 in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting.” (Sanofi, the maker of Ambien, posted its own tweet to set the record straight: “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects,” it read, “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”)
Here is what the “Today Show” host Matt Lauer said about his #MeToo scandal: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.”
Here is what the NBC journalist Brian Williams initially said in a 2015 interview with Mr. Lauer, after being caught in a monstrous, oft-told lie: “I am sorry for what happened.” As though the lie had simply befallen him, independent of his own volition.
When the Food Network fired celebrity chef Paula Deen for using a racist epithet, Ms. Deen told Mr. Lauer — yes, him again — she was sorry for the epithet but was not herself a racist. “Would I have fired me? Knowing me? No.” (No word on whether she would have fired Mr. Lauer.)
To their credit, these public figures all issued much more comprehensive and seemingly heartfelt apologies later on, although Ms. Barr appeared to retract hers following an outpouring of support from conservatives, including the president. (“You guys make me feel like fighting back,” she tweeted. “I will examine all of my options carefully.”)
If you are a Catholic of a certain age, you grew up reciting the Act of Contrition every day, and you thereby learned some things about remorse. (Maybe you learned only the language of remorse, but still: “We are what we pretend to be,” as Kurt Vonnegut observed.)
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishments, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”
A child who learns these words learns that an apology consists of four parts:
- Genuine remorse (not “I don’t remember it that way” but “I am truly, wholeheartedly sorry.”)
- The expectation of unpleasant but entirely deserved consequences (not “I wouldn’t have fired me” but “I’m seeking help to confront my racism.”)
- A resolution not to commit the same error again (not “I’m not as bad as some of these stories suggest” but “I’m much worse than I ever imagined, and I plan to devote the rest of my life to making amends.”)
- A sincere effort to avoid the circumstances that led to the error in the first place (not “I won’t take Ambien any more” but “I will no longer hang out online with racists.”)
The moral imperative of the Act of Contrition has its limitations, of course, starting with the question of who gets to decide what might offend God. (“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image,” Anne Lamott famously pointed out, “when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”) And God knows the world is still waiting for the Catholic Church to apologise for some criminal errors of its own. The prayer is nevertheless a good basic template for something that no longer seems basic at all: knowing how to clean up a mess of your own making.
When a person causes egregious offense, the appropriate response isn’t damage control. The appropriate response is a genuine apology — not because you might get your TV show back but because to acknowledge a mistake is to participate fully in the human community. We all mess up. We all see through blinders. We all say hurtful things. We all nurture prejudices we don’t recognise in ourselves.
It isn’t necessary to think of these tendencies as being part of a sinful nature to understand that they are endemic to human life. Even a full-throated apology won’t erase a colossal mistake. We will never make ourselves perfect. But we can try to make ourselves better, and the culture we live in, too.