Reconciliation Day—April 2 in the U.S.–was established in 1989 as a day to make amends: to apologize, repair a damaged or fractured relationship, and (most importantly) to accept an extended olive branch.
There is nothing quite as bad as an apology that isn’t…except, perhaps, an apology that is rescinded.
I was thinking about all of this on the most recent Reconciliation Day as I recalled two apologies received years ago: one which did me worlds of good until it was thoughtlessly undone; the other which wasn’t truly an apology at all.
The event resulting in the annulled amends actually occurred in my high school days: an incident which, in the scheme of a lifetime, was extremely minor, but which at age 15 caused me intense mortification. A classmate’s actions inadvertently resulted in my inappropriate discipline.
The classmate–I think her name was Leonie—sat near me during study hour each afternoon in the school cafeteria. On the day in question, Leonie made several complaints to the study hall proctor, Mr. Iverson. Another student’s behavior—talking, teasing, flirting, laughing—was making it difficult for everyone to concentrate. I ignored the troublemaker, but she drove Leonie to distraction. The third time Leonie complained, Mr. Iverson stomped back with her to our table. But, having misunderstood, he grabbed me by the arm and frog-marched me to the front of the cafeteria, where he forced me to stand at attention for the rest of the hour. Leonie attempted to tell Mr. Iverson that he’d gotten the wrong person, but he waved a hand in her face, commanding her to sit down and shut up.
The humiliation I felt was extreme. I was that “good kid” who was never in trouble—and here I was, displayed before 200 of my classmates as a scofflaw. And it was all Leonie’s fault.
She tried to speak to me as I grabbed my books when the bell rang, but I stormed furiously past her. The following morning, though, she managed to catch me and shove a paper into my hands: a written apology. Worded very dramatically—we were teenage girls, after all!—it nevertheless did the job. The next time I passed Leonie in line, we joined hands, all forgiven. Although I rarely saw her after that, being in different classes, the effort Leonie had made to apologize left me with a warm glow.
Years later, as young adults, we met accidentally on the street. We both recalled that old incident with rueful grins. Then Leonie said the words that were, to me, like a sharp slap across the face: “…and then I gave you that stupid note! I was such a little idiot.”
The apology that had meant so much to a distressed 15-year-old was now reduced to regret and ashes; to having been a worthless gesture made by a fool.
Perhaps my face revealed my feelings as I heard her annul her apology. I only recall that she quickly ended our unplanned meeting and went on her way. But I’ve never thought of Leonie again without an ironic twist of the lips.
The second apology—the apology that wasn’t—came to me in letter form, also, decades after the events in question. The woman who penned the apology had, in those pre-internet days, gone to some trouble to track me down and mail it to me, writing that she hoped she’d found the right person.
When we were both young, I’d been the victim of this woman’s intentional persecution: horrific bullying that went on for months. Even belatedly, I was overwhelmed to have an apology…at least at first.
Her letter began well, saying that she now realized she’d behaved badly. She needed me to understand that she’d been young and immature, and desperately afraid of not looking “cool” in front of her clique of friends. I, unfashionable, plain, and insecure, had been an easy target. She hoped that I could, would, forgive her.
I read this letter through multiple times, puzzled as to why I felt no relief upon reading it. Finally, it became clear to me. Notably absent were the two vital words that would have made the letter an actual apology: “I’m sorry.” Nowhere in her letter were the words, “I’m sorry”, or “I apologize”; nor even the words, “I’m ashamed”. This wasn’t, I realized, an attempt to make amends, but a pallid excuse embroidered with pale justifications. It was a request for absolution failing either an assumption of personal responsibility or penitence for the wrongs done, coupled with an unflattering, if accurate, assessment of my person in that era.
Crumpling the letter, I tossed it into the trash. I never wrote back to her.
Now, though, I regret not having replied. I should have responded, pointing out precisely what was missing from her ostensible apology. I should have explained that, while I had long since forgiven her, I could neither forget her behavior nor absolve her misdeeds. It was incumbent upon her to find some way to repay the debt she owed, not to me, but to the universe, for her cruelty.
As I say, I sat this Reconciliation Day thinking of these two apologies: one annulled, one that wasn’t, while reminding myself that true reconciliation also mandates that one accept an extended olive branch. In both situations, by withholding my responses—yes, even my disgusted responses—I failed, and a liability now sits upon my own shoulders. That is the debt I myself must repay to the universe…perhaps on another Reconciliation Day.
If you liked this blog post, you might also enjoy “Forgiveness is Always an Option”. It can be found in the archives posted on June 24, 2019.