I had a moment recently, a moment I wished I could take back. A moment at a party, a comment I could claim was meant to be funny but really, under the light, was a dig at the expense of my friend. I saw the hurt on her face as she got up from the table and walked away, covering her irritation and disappointment with a dismissive smile. My heart dropped. I approached her, not sure but sure, hoping I hadn’t just dug that hole but knowing I was standing knee deep. I knew I had to own it.
“I upset you.”
“Well, yeah, but. . .” She downplayed it, brushing it hastily away with a shrug and a quick departure, but not before she said what I’m sure she’d been feeling for some time: “You comment on it every time we see each other.”
When she said it it stung. When she said it I felt immediately surprised—I hadn’t realized I’d made a habit of poking this wound, but clearly I had. We need to pay attention to the defenses people learn to build in our presence. The temptation is to explain it away, but the reality was I’d earned a reputation. I felt embarrassed and ashamed, exposed as that girl at the party I didn’t want to be. Before we left I made another attempt at an apology, but still walked away feeling a pit in my stomach. I had offended someone I cared about. I had hurt a friend. A simple “I’m sorry” felt woefully inadequate.
In the car with my family later that day I talked with my husband about it and the kids overheard. And their curiosity took over.
“What did you say Mommy?”
“Why was she so hurt?”
“What are you going to do?”
I was surprised at the intensity of their questions, of their interest in my bungling. Perhaps they sensed my distress over the situation. Perhaps they were intrigued to hear of drama outside the family. Perhaps it was the novelty of seeing Mommy in the hot seat, needing to make amends. How often do children feel as though they are the only ones who ever make a mistake? I didn’t particularly appreciate the spotlight, but I knew this was an opportunity to teach my kids about asking forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. I knew this was a chance to model humility.
I wrote my friend a note, dropped it in the mail the next day. I told her I recognized my wrong and grieved the fact that I had hurt her. I thanked her for exposing my fault and asked her to forgive my repeated offenses. I told her I valued our friendship and I hoped this experience might make it stronger.
And I told my kids all about it. Because after all their inquiries the night before, all their curiosity about Mommy hurting someone’s feelings and what was I going to do about it, this experience solidified for me that my kids have moved beyond the stage of the obligatory “I’m sorry” followed by the resuming of play.
Apologies are not about getting someone to stop fussing so we can move on. They are about owning our missteps, honoring others above our own egos, and valuing the experience of those we affect. Apologizing and asking for forgiveness require prioritizing relationships ahead of our desire to see our actions as justified no matter how they impact those around us. A real apology acknowledges that when I say I’m sorry and you say It’s okay, it’s really not okay. That’s why an apology is in order—because my offense was not okay and I need to make it right.
I wanted my kids to know that I didn’t just feel bad for hurting my friend, I was willing to follow through to make amends. I wanted to show them a true effort at reconciliation. I wanted to show them that people are worth the uncomfortable.
People are always worth it.