Apology and Forgiveness

“Self-righteousness has killed more people than smoking.”
– John McCarthy, British Journalist

During the course of a recent talk on ethics I spoke about the need to forgive; to forgive those who have not only hurt our feelings but even those who have stolen or cheated.  During the Q&A, someone asked if that forgiveness should extend to the corporate CEOs at Enron, WorldCom, and others who had been found guilty of cheating thousands out of jobs, homes and retirement pensions.

“Yes,” I said. “Of course, that forgiveness should not come with a pass on consequences. They were convicted of a crime and deserve time behind bars as well as any monetary damages the court finds.”

From an ethical standpoint, it’s just as important to acknowledge and apologize for our own mistakes, as it is to forgive others of theirs.

This is not always easy. It may not be easy to admit to a co-worker, friend or boss that we have stepped out of line or done something wrong. The element of shame can be a strong deterrent to apologize, and some interpret it as a sign of weakness. But if we can see the other side; if we can accept the hurt we may have caused – however unconsciously – we can start over by being more mindful of what we say or do in the future.

Sometimes, however, we may not be aware of the mistakes or hurt we have caused another. This came to light in a recent situation with a family member. Sitting at the dinner table during a family gathering, one member sat in front of a plate that was virtually empty of food. “I’m not hungry,” he said and made some vague reference to a back ache. He remained strangely quiet for the rest of the evening and the following morning, then, sat out in the car waiting to go home. Many of us thought that a more serious medical problem was the cause.

A day later, the real reason was revealed. Earlier, on the afternoon of the get together, I had turned off the TV because no one was watching. When I next saw two people sitting in the same room a short time later, I reminded them to turn the TV off when they leave the room. The cause of all the silence was brought on by my polite but apparently unfortunate comment.

I immediately got on the phone and apologized for any misunderstanding or improper tone on my part. Even though I don’t believe I had done anything wrong, it obviously was misinterpreted and could be a potential barrier to future relations. It’s important to clear the air because it shows others and reminds ourselves that we can and do make mistakes sometimes – mistakes that can hurt others without our knowing even when the words may seem inoffensive.

“But what if there is no apology?” someone asked. “What then?”

“You forgive, anyway,” I said.

The German Political theorist, Hannah Arendt said, “Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom.”

In October 2005, several Amish families lost their daughters at the hands of a disturbed shooter. “As we were standing next to the body of this 13-year-old girl,” the Reverend Robert Schenck told CNN, “the grandfather was tutoring the young boys; he was making a point, ‘We must not think evil of this man.’ It was one of the most touching things I have seen in 25 years of Christian ministry.”

Not long after burying their own family members, many of the Amish went to comfort the family of the gunman.

Apology and forgiveness are two sides of the same ethical coin. It levels the playing field of our conscience. It allows us to let go of the destructive cynicism of self-righteousness and frees us to strive to live up to the best that we can be.

 

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