When I was a kid, this is how apologies worked:
- Kid does something mean.
- Other kid cries.
- Mom comes in. (uh oh)
- Words are had.
- Kid 1 says “I’m sorry.”
- Kid 2 says “I forgive you.”
- The problem is OVER. You are not allowed to keep doing the mean thing or fighting over it.
This is a simplistic version of apologies, because, you know, kids are stupid. And most of the things they fight about are stupid. So these first few apologies are insincere and coerced by the parents because kids don’t understand yet that their actions affect other people, or even that other people ARE people, with as full and lived experiences as they have. Kids aren’t able to grasp morality, so parents walk them through it by hand, building the muscle memory so that they will be able to give sincere apologies as they grow and develop as humans.
Which is fine. These toddler disputes are generally not over substantial problems (“She’s playing with the toy I wanted to play with.” “He’s taunting me because he got a bigger pancake.” “I wanted to be the one to jump in the leaves.”). “Forgive and forget” is baked into these arguments because they are forgettable problems and because the little kid brains are quick to move on to the next thing. And sometimes, the parents just need the fight to end so they can get a moment of blessed relief from the screaming.
But you can’t stop at this basic understanding of apologies. “I’m sorry” doesn’t make up for running over someone with your car. There are a lot of adult situations where the kid rules for apologizing don’t work. Situations where harm was not intended, but inflicted all the same. Situations where you’ve come to regret actions you did not feel remorse for at the time. Situations where the harm that was caused is irreparable. Situations where you apologize not because you mean it, but because you want to maintain peace or keep your job.
Obligatory forgiveness is often not the right response, either. Forgiveness can be smug or insincere just like apologies can. Sometimes, instead of “I forgive you,” an apology calls for “Thank you for hearing me,” or “I need more time before I’m ready to respond,” or “I can’t forgive you if you’re not trying to change this pattern of behavior.” And sometimes the right answer is just walking away.
In American culture, at least, the childhood script (apology, forgiveness, problem over) is drilled into us early, and I think a lot of us never advance to a more layered understanding. I think this is particularly evident in discussions about inequality (economic, racial, sexual, etc.). In many cases, people feel bad about participating in or benefiting from unfair systems or structures, and want these problems to be resolved. But because of our conditioning, we tend to see the apology, the forgiveness, and the solution to the problem as inextricably linked. In one case, a person apologizes, and when no forgiveness is forthcoming, they short-circuit at the lack of resolution to the problem (“I said I’m sorry, what more do they want?”). In another, a person sees that the problem is too big to be fixed by an apology, and they don’t feel the apology is necessary (“Why should I be sorry? It’s not MY fault.”).
For apologizers: Practice apologies that aren’t contingent on receiving forgiveness in response. Let your apologies be for the other person, not just to absolve you of your guilt. Understand that an apology often does not remove a problem.
For forgivers: Learn that it’s okay to set boundaries, and know how to gauge whether you’re ready to forgive someone or not. Forgiving does not have to mean forgetting.
For parents: Try to revisit the apologies conversation with your kids as they become capable of abstract thought and seeing things from other points of view. Teach them the difference between apologizing for intent and apologizing for effect, and how to do both well, even for problems that can’t be solved.