The Physics of Apologies

Some words are like Swiss army knives. Small enough to slip in your pocket, capable of unfolding in different ways– depending on whether you need to whittle a piece of birchwood, open a bottle, or tighten a screw. This makes them convenient– but also at times when context is unclear– confusing. A Swiss army knife on a camping trip is more readily understood, than a Swiss army knife going through airport security in your carry-on luggage.

Misunderstood Swiss army knives are typically confiscated. Misunderstood words however, will typically continue to travel through the world unchecked, trailing bafflement, umbrage, heartbreak, hilarity or fertile possibility in their wake. Unlike a misunderstood Swiss army knife a misunderstood word can accrue new capabilities. It can cause happy accidents, productive subversions– even poetry. Especially poetry.

Because whether you are a word or not, meaning more than one thing means you carry, at all times, simultaneous potentials. The potentials to be for instance, useful, problematic, transcendent, lyrical, loathsome, or some combination of the above. Perhaps this is the precise definition of what it means to be a person. And this brings me now, to the subject of apologies.

Because sorry is a Swiss army knife of a word. One whose roots lie in the old English, German and Dutch words for sorrow, suffering and sores. And just as one might wrangle mousse and meringues out of aquafaba, sorry can be whipped into a multiplicity of meanings. For practical purposes, humans must never leave home without it. Must carry it in their back pocket at all times (hermits and tyrants are exempt,)  for social emergencies. 

Sorry proves useful as a sincere expression of sympathy in the face of misfortune (I am sorry for the loss of your pet dung beetle), or as a pity-tinged declaration of compassion (I feel sorry for his poor wife). It can be an efficient way to communicate wretchedness (Bartholemew is in a sorry state), or indicate that an enterprise is entirely regrettable (The whole sorry business of growing up). But we reach for it most often and in daily ways, where lines have been crossed, hearts pricked or severely wounded, mischief or injury done. At such times it is employed as a hat-in-hand expression of contrition, “I’m sorry…” 

Not everyone knows how to properly use the bottle cap opener in a Swiss army knife. Not everyone knows how to properly use the word sorry in an apology. This makes the give and take of apologies, as a field of study– like that of two-toed sloths and blobfish– utterly fascinating.

I don’t remember her name. I do remember her small head sported two brown braids and a grown-up expression. We are standing under a large tree, and she is apologizing for recent meanness. I am five-years-old. This is my first time receiving an apology. Like the first bite of a rare tropical fruit, the experience is exotic. A sunburst suffusion of sweetness fills me in a way I did not know I was capable of being filled. The sting of injured pride eclipsed, I stand rapt, reluctant to let this moment end. So I say the only logical thing there is to say, “I didn’t hear you — what did you say?” 

She repeats the words. Her tone a tinge flatter this time- naturally. When an apology is well-delivered, requesting an encore is boorish. But I am spellbound, oblivious to protocol. Dazed and amazed at this new dynamic. I wish I could tell you this was my initiation into forgiveness. I wish I could say what riveted me, was encountering an in-born capacity for clemency. But I can’t. In truth what enchanted me was a heady, ill-understood sense of power. The glamorous feeling of being influential. And an innocent desire to ride the wave of that feeling. In feeling this way I was of course, fundamentally misinterpreting the energetics of it all. This is understandable because the physics of apologies is confusing. 

Sincerely admit to smallness and you do not shrink — you expand. The fact that we do not always rightly perceive this phenomenon perhaps accounts for some of our sloppiness. As a race humans are notably given to making apologies, and accomplished at making exceptionally bad ones. Variations on the theme abound. There is the seeming apology (I’m sorry you feel that way.) The churlish apology (Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m sorry.) The oblivious apology (No clue what I did, but I’m sorry.) The disguised-blame apology, (I’m sorry you did that,) the expectant apology (I’m sorry, and you should be sorry too.) The forced apology, the perfunctory apology, the relentless apology…each add their own flavors to this sorry stew. And where did it all begin?

Trace a person’s life all the way back to their origins and you may discover the why behind the who. Trace a word back to its beginning and you may catch a whiff of the why behind the what. Apology roots back to early 15th century Greek and Latin, apologia. The word denoted ‘a formal defense against an accusation.’ Yes. An apology in its heyday, was a form of argument, justification, or excuse. Not an expression of contrition, or regret, not an admission of wrong-doing, or a brave preamble to making amends. It was a mea not culpa stance. It isn’t entirely clear when or how the usage flipped. But regardless of timelines and reasons, when such contradictions wrestle within the life of the word itself, no wonder our apologies are muddled. 

But even in such muddied waters there dwells the rare possibility of soulful apology. You will know it when you feel the green fuse rising within you, a cleansing force that requires no calculation or strategy. You will know it when it blooms in another. Lotus-like, perfectly formed, held above all the swirling tumult of the past. Setting the air abuzz with the fragrance of freshly freed energy. 

You will know it by the breath you are no longer holding. The extra space you find to dance in. You will know it by the dawn-like dazzle of finding yourself a few steps closer, to home.

2 responses to “The Physics of Apologies

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