Don’t Wait. Apologize!

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the flower leaves on the heel of the one that crushed it.



I’m sorry I was late,” he said, holding out a huge bouquet. “Saying you’re sorry just doesn’t cut it,” she snarled. “And forget the roses!” She knew he was thinking that the problem was that she was an angry person – not that he had forgotten to pick her up for the fifth time.

“I said I was sorry,” he grumbled. “What else can I do?” She couldn’t hold back the tears that always put him over the edge. “Oh, for goodness sake !” he shouted and stormed out.

For most of us, this scene is all too familiar. I am certainly no stranger to the lame apology. I have been the guilty party, and I have been the recipient of roses, so I know all the moves. Usually we apologize to put ourselves in a better light. “Sorry,” we say, and then add “but” as shorthand for “I’m really right.”

Yet one apology I received miraculously left us both feeling better and started me thinking about apologizing in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with being wrong.

A new kind of apology

It happened when we moved my mother into a hospice, just weeks before she died from lung cancer. I tried frantically to make everything comfortable for her. Her first evening, she wanted to watch a Red Sox game on cable TV, but there was no cable in the building. I let the cable company know that this would be my mother’s last game, and the house was wired within two hours.

When my sister rushed back from 18 months abroad, I stood aside so she and our mother could catch up. But when I returned to my mother’s bedside, I was greeted by a tray of hospice food thrown directly at me. My mother said she never wanted to see my face again.

In another attempt to please her, I typed up the poems she had been writing throughout her life and bound them into a spiral book. But my mother berated me for my selfishness: Obviously, I had done this only to be admired, whereas she was a woman of privacy. Tears of self-pity burned my eyes.

As I sat by her bed the night before she died, I felt my mother reach out her hand and hook her pinky finger around mine. “Rozzie,” she said, “the reason I’ve been so mean to you and so nice to your sister is that when you were children, I was nicer to you than I was to her. I wanted to even things out. But it’s silly, darling. I apologize. You know I love you.”

You see things more clearly around death or birth. I noticed how different her apology was from the usual kind. My mother wasn’t apologizing for her actions. She never said she was wrong. Nor was she trying to pacify me – in fact, I hadn’t complained. She didn’t mention throwing food or hurling insults at me. Instead, she apologized for how she had frayed the tie between us. And by doing so, she knit it up again.

I realized that there were two kinds of apologies: In one, someone admits she is wrong, the other person gets his revenge, and justice is served. The second type is as different as love to war. In this one, a person notices that something is broken and finds a way to make it whole again.

Whose fault is it? Does it matter?

I began to notice that whenever there was tension between me and someone else, I could always find a real, honest-to-goodness reason to apologize.

For instance, I picked a fight with my husband the other day – about an issue I felt justified in raising. But he just looked upset, accused me of spoiling things and reminded me that he had a big project due. I realized I had a choice about bringing us together again. “Come here,” I said and gave him a hug. “I’m sorry for introducing an important topic when you have no time to talk. It made us both feel bad. I promise I’ll find a better moment soon.” I didn’t say I was wrong about the subject matter. I apologized for causing a rift between us. His mood became sunny in a flash.

Some years ago, at a school meeting, my son’s teachers were talking about ways to make him more responsible. I began defending him and telling them how to do their jobs. I was riding a very high horse. Suddenly I realized things were not going in a good direction. I stopped short and said, “I’m sorry. I forgot who you are.” By which I meant, “How can I be treating you as the enemy, when you have dedicated your lives to children?” Their faces changed so rapidly, it was as if I had waved a magic wand.

Recently, my husband – who runs a program for young musicians – was upset with some of the students for skipping a concert after he had arranged for tickets and buses. “Be sure to apologize,” I said. I had become so awe-struck by the power of an apology, so certain that one can find the way in which one is a source of friction, that he had to laugh: “What could I possibly apologize to those kids for?”

But he found it. He said to the students, “I want to apologize to you. Some of you missed a concert that I felt was really important for you to hear. I see now that if I am going to invite you to something special, I should talk about it in a way that gets you so excited that you won’t want to miss it for anything. So I let us all down.”

One student came up to him afterward. “I was one of those who went shopping,” she said. “I just want to say I’m sorry.” He had showed her how easily an apology restores connection, and she caught the spark.

Practicing the apology

Once you realize you don’t have to make yourself wrong to deliver an apology, you’ll feel a new power. If you differ strongly with a friend on a political matter, you can say: “My passion for my own beliefs has made it difficult for me to fully understand yours. If it has caused trouble between us, I apologize. My relationship with you is more important than whether we agree or not.”

And if you have a strained situation with your boss and feel misunderstood, at least you can say, “I’m sorry for the tension that has developed between us. I intend to find a way to work it out.”

If your teenage daughter screams at you that you are ruining her life with your rules, you can say: “My rules are meant to protect you and teach you how to get along with people. I’m sorry for any bossiness or coldness that I may have delivered with my message.”

We cannot always act in perfect harmony with the people we love. They inevitably will feel upset, misunderstood and frustrated by things we do. But we don’t have to get so caught up with figuring out who is right and who is wrong that we forget what matters. “Because of deep love, we are courageous,” said the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse more than 2000 years ago. The power of an apology does not lie in the admission of guilt. An apology is a tool to affirm the primacy of our connection with others. It can unlock deep love in our everyday lives.

-Rosamund Stone Zander

Rosamund Stone Zander develops transformational models for leadership and relationships as a regular speaker on the Fast Company event circuit. Mrs. Zander is in private practice as a psychotherapist and runs an Accomplishment Program to enable people to complete major projects. A well-reviewed landscape painter with training in the arts, she proposes a theory of human development that promotes creativity as an essential adult capacity. She is the author, along with conductor Benjamin Zander, of “The Art of Possibility” (Harvard Business School Press, Ó 2000) and the soon-to-be-published “Bridges to Possibility”  (also Harvard Business School).The above article is a reprint from Parade Magazine Ó2001.


If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.

--The Bhagavad Gita 14

This week, a friend asked how to get past the shame of being a “bad parent” who had made a mistake many years ago, and how they could patch up a relationship with an adult child, a relationship which had been damaged as a result of owning up to the mistake. Unfortunately, I knew just where to start to look for answers – in my own experience. Just such a difficulty I am facing with two of my own adult children. I suggested she read some past articles found in Friday’s Inspiration, and decided that I should redouble my efforts to mend my own fences, too.

An absolute requirement of this process is a desire to put blaming and complaining aside and commit to a sincere effort to give the relationship a chance. Without that, the relationship remains broken. So, my dear friend, after many tears and much prayer over several years, this is what I have found which works, and what does not work. Two of my adult children and I have agreed to rebuild and repair our relationship. I have hopes that the others will follow in the footsteps of these young, wise-beyond-their-years, dearest members of my family - my newest and sweetest friends.

The first thing I did was to find a way to express to them that I desired to be closer to them, that I could not live with myself another day if I did not make an effort to undo some of the damage I had done by showing them I had truly changed, and there was no longer a reason to be separated. I gave them the right to decline the offer, knowing that there was a lot of hurt and anger that they would have to face if they chose to begin rebuilding our relationship. I apologized for past hurts and mistakes, sincerely – not just to make things better, but because I knew that there were a lot of wrongs, a lot of pain that I was responsible for. I let them know that I loved them, but wanted nothing from them in return for that. My love was unconditional, freely offered from my heart, no strings nor expectations. I then moved back and gave them lots of room, lots of time to consider their options. I gave the idea time to grow and mature in their thoughts. Patience was the key for this period of time, another of life’s lessons I needed to practice. Two of them decided to give me a chance and see what developed. I prayed that I would not let them, or myself, down. Again.

Next was to take it slowly. It had taken a lot of years to get to the state in which we found the relationship, so it was not going to be repaired overnight. It will take time to build trust - it may take several years for trust to return to this relationship. We are determined, however, to not let things go back to the way they were. That was much too uncomfortable to live with, now that we have decided to make things better. It is a time to rediscover who the other person is. I am curious about them, as if they were someone I am getting to know for the first time. I have to set aside my thinking of them as a family member, and begin to see them as everyone else sees them. They are no longer my “kids,” and I have not been their “dad” for many years. I look closely; I pay attention; I deal with them gently.

The work before me is to find ways to keep the “walls” down, to not let them go up. There are lots of things that can trigger this, because we have used certain strategies to deal with the broken relationship, and now those strategies were set aside, cautiously. We are vulnerable, and it was my job to do my best to honor that in this new-found intimacy we have agreed to share. That is what closeness is about: being close enough to have one’s feelings hurt. There are some hot buttons for both of us, and we remember how to push them, don’t we? But pushing them contradicts the goal of being closer. We talked about the past enough to acknowledge it; we concluded that the old baggage was just too heavy to carry any longer, and elected to let the past be the past. What good would it do to thoroughly hash that stuff over anyway? We cannot change it, or how it made us feel. We can only change this moment, and how we feel now - that is our only true choice. More than anything, this confirmed to each of us that the other was a mature adult, sincere in our determination to succeed.

Along with building trust in each other comes the requirement of honesty. Just because I have known this young person for a long time doesn’t mean I know who they are, or they who I am. Letting them see my authentic self reinforces the idea that I am not the same person that they remember, that I have changed over the years. Honoring this “child-no-longer” as an adult, looking carefully for and insisting upon dealing with their authentic self empowers them in ways that simply dealing with them as “the parent” in this new situation cannot, and acknowledges that neither are they the same person I remember.

As in any relationship, the road is never smooth, but the destination is rewarding. It will take effort on both of our parts. Not cooperation coerced from them simply because they are family, but a willing effort. Choosing to walk this path together affords each of us the opportunity to share the load of the other, to encourage and support each other based on a love that goes beyond respect and trust. Not to do for them, or them for me. Not parent and child, but two like souls seeking and providing safe ground for each other.

We are good friends, and that is what good friends are for.



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