A Teleological Look at the Apology

It is important to know that an apology, first and foremost, wants to have an effect.  An impact.  That is its reason for being.  It seeks to change something, to improve a relationship between people in the optimistic hope that moving forward can be better, more satisfying, and more secure in a shared understanding of why what went down went down and where people’s intentions lay.  In that way, it is an invested gesture; the apologist is invested in the idea that the future can be better than the present or the past.  The apologist cares.  That’s why you don’t hear people say, “It’s doesn’t matter, but I’m sorry” or “I don’t care if you believe me, but I’m sorry.”  Such phrases harbor inherent contradictions.

So, my first point is simply that an apology, unlike other rhetorical forms, wants to have an effect, and if it doesn’t, it is worse than meaningless, it is a failed gesture.

And that is also why the apology bears a teleological examination – because its function and its purpose are more important than its form and more important than its logic.

The word apology is a combination of two roots: apo- from the Greek meaning away from or separate and –ology meaning the study of or really speech that.  So, an apology is speech that separates or moves away from.  Language that distances the speaker from the act or the decision or whatever it is the apology is for.  The key here is that an apology, at its root, is a rejection of past behavior.  The apologist is saying, “That isn’t how I want to be moving forward” or “I wouldn’t do it that way again.”

My second point is that an apology distances the apologist from past behavior.  It does not embrace the past.  It rejects it as wrong.

So, an apology can’t embrace or accept the state of things and reject it at the same time.  In this light, the phrase, “I am sorry, but that is just the way it is” stops making any sense at all.  I know it is a commonly uttered sequence of words, and it does express something, but it is not an apology.  In fact, it is a ducking of responsibility, a sugar coating, and a failure to stand up to the difficult reality of the situation.  If that is simply the way things are, it may be painful, but coopting the language of the apology to ease the pain is inappropriate.

Similar issues exist with, “I am sorry, but that’s the way I am” or “I am sorry, but we have always had a hard time communicating” or “I am sorry, but you are going to have to get used to it.”  Not one of those is an apology because they all embrace the way things are.

At this point it should be obvious that conceits like “I am sorry, but I had to do it” and “I am sorry, but you made me do it” don’t function as apologies, either.  Again, something is expressed by such phrases, but it is more akin to blame than contrition.

“I am sorry” is best when it stands alone.  No buts.  And really no explanations.  Sometimes an explanation can be helpful in understanding why something happened, but that is a separate issue and it needs to be addressed separately.  It is fine to ask, “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking” or even to offer, “I want to tell you what I was thinking” but that, too, seeks to incorporate what happened into some logical, meaningful context, as if to say, “I am sorry for what happened, but it had to happen for these reasons” or “There is a perfectly good reason for what happened.”

And so, my third point is simply that apologies are not logical and they make no alliance with reason.  They are fundamentally about emotional healing.  The desire to give an explanation of one’s actions is a compulsion of the apologist, not the one to whom the apology is given.

The apology is about ownership.  To be credible and effective as an apology – to bring about a change in an relationship between people – the apology needs to express ownership of decisions or actions.  In some sense this is just a reiteration of the previous points, but it is also the core understanding.  An apology has to say, in some way, “I broke it, and I want to fix it.”

This is a key understanding and critical for the apologist to feel in its fullness.  In issuing an apology, one must be able to answer the question, “What did I break?”

  • If you feel that nothing was broken, you will be drawn to apologizing for another’s feelings, which is patronizing, as in, “I am sorry you are upset” or “I am sorry if you felt you were wronged.”
  • If you feel that you didn’t break it, you will be drawn to locating the responsibility elsewhere, which won’t have an effect on the one to whom you are apologizing, as in, “I am sorry, but I had to” for some reason.

Notice that the important question to answer is “What did I break?” – not “Why did I break it?”

My last point is simply that an apology functions by accepting ownership of one’s roll in breaking or damaging something, not by explaining the circumstances.

The really hard implication to this is that if you feel like you didn’t break it, you have no business apologizing for it.  Life and the daily interactions between people can be painful, but there are other, more potent salves in certain circumstances.  The apology is not to be overused or misused in the wrong situations.  It is a very specific tool, not a cure-all.

And it will be meaningless if it comes in the form of “I am sorry for what I did, and under the same circumstances I would do it again.”  It can’t say that, it can’t sound like it is saying that, it can’t even insinuate that what happened was inevitable.  An apology is a rejection of the past and a hope that the future will be different.

And just know that an apology that begins, “I am sorry, but…” will never succeed.

How does the apology qualify as a live encounter?  Because, fundamentally, the real apologist confronts himself in real time, weaponless and without armor.  When we apologize we are Oedipus realizing that the scourge of the land is himself, we are Gilgamesh realizing that he killed Enkidu, not the gods, and we are Odysseus realizing that his own arrogance has cursed him.  The only dragon we every slay is ourself, and in so doing we achieve greatness.

5 thoughts on “A Teleological Look at the Apology

  1. Rod Lamkey

    You’re right. “I’m sorry, but…” won’t succeed. Like: “I love you, but…” qualifies the word ‘love’ which is, in my mind, an absolute.

  2. lindsay meisel

    so a well-wrought apology must break from the past. but it’s interesting that we never say “i FEEL sorry,” which would establish a bit more distance between the speaker and the deed than “i AM sorry,” which says “my sorriness is constitutive of me.” We might say “I should not have done that,” but it doesn’t carry the affirmative power of “I’m sorry.” Can an apology embrace and reject simultaneously?

  3. putyatin Post author

    Yes, a well-wrought apology MUST break from the past. That’s the key. In order for me to feel better about what happened – that is, in order for the apology to have an effect – I have to know that that happened was NOT what should have happened. “I FEEL sorry” relegates the contrition to the realm of feelings, which are fleeting, ephemeral. We would never say, for instance, “I FEEL love for you” – it sounds so temporary. We say “I love you” – or, “I am in love with you” – which is to say, as you say, “love is constitutive of me in relation to you.” It is a beautiful thing you say about an apology embracing and rejecting at the same time because it acknowledges that an apology OWNS and DISTANCES simultaneously. It says, and MUST say, “that is me and I don’t want to be that person.”
    Great thoughts, Lindsay. Thanks. Tell me where I can read your current writing. Different Kind of Human seems to have gone dormant of late, no?

  4. lindsay meisel

    I love the tension inherent in an apology, but I also struggle with it. Specifically with the “should” part — “what happened was NOT what should have happened.” When I was a kid, my dad always used to say that the word “should” should not exist (I suppose that’s a bit of a contradiction, but you get the idea); the only thing we have is what “is,” and focusing on the should’s of life is a great way to be unhappy.

    But your discussion of apologies showed me that the story around “should” is actually a bit more complex. That there are instances where you can be both affirming of what is actually happening, and also express an intention for it to be different. So, thanks for opening up my eyes to this!

    And yes, my blog has been pretty dormant lately. I hope to start posting again soon, but it’s hard to be consistent! Any tips?

  5. putyatin Post author

    Yes. You have it exactly right – as far as I see it. The ability to own one’s faults, foibles, inadequacies – and then move on past them – not by denying that they exist but by embracing them as unacceptable, I think is one of the keys to happiness. Human frailty is a beautiful thing.

    I don’t have any tips that are worth anything. Just keep writing it. Your blog is good – at times really, really good. The first scene in This Is What Sex Looks Like is absolutely golden. I hope you know that – although I know that it is hard to know much about your own writing. I will post some other comments on the pieces themselves.

    Keep it up, Lindsay. Your writing is beautiful and the world needs more beauty.


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