“Sorry” is a magic word.
I’ve talked about these before. The performative phrases, the things you say out loud that are supposed to alter the state of being, change the substance of the air around you. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought a lot about “sorry” and its power. And I’m beginning to realize that Dana was right; sorry doesn’t help. Sorry is an easy answer, sure. It’s a way out of a real conversation. But I think it’s more than that. “Sorry” can hurt. In fact, I think it’s hurt my life a lot.
So fuck you, sorry. I’m not taking your shit anymore.
When Erin and I were young, I think it’s safe to say that both of us were astoundingly afraid of treading on anyone else’s toes. We didn’t like getting into trouble. We didn’t like “being bad.” And we most definitely did not like hurting another person. So one of my earliest “sorry” stories mirrors hers almost exactly. I was playing with my neighbors from across the street, a girl and boy very close to my age who were my first real companions in childhood. I was around 4 I’m sure, meaning that Girl was 5 and her Brother was about 3. Brother was the sort of kid who was always underfoot. He wanted to be around me and Girl, but he was still a little young, a little bit behind us. One year of difference matters a lot more when you’re that small, when every year is such a huge portion of life lived. And we, being older, were always in a race to get away.
On this particular day, Girl and I were in a major hurry to play outside. Rain had plagued us all week and we had been cooped up. As our mothers sat and dallied in the living room, we were insisting loudly that we needed to move, to get going. Wasn’t it dry enough yet? Couldn’t we just go out and see, test the ground to find out if it was still wet? We promised we wouldn’t track in mud. Finally they relented, giving one of us the key to unlock the back door and head into the yard, unattended. I ran to the door and fiddled with the lock, Girl standing next to me all the while hurrying me along. The lock gave in and I swung the door back, ready to push through into the sunshine.
As I swung back the door, an enormous moan came from somewhere near the ground. And then the sound of sobbing. Brother had been trying to follow us out. In the haste to get what I wanted, I hadn’t noticed him underfoot, where he always was, his head close to the door. When I swung it open it knocked his head and sent him tumbling over, crying.
“I’m sorry!” I started crying too. Just as loud and just as long as Brother did. I was inconsolable. I had hurt someone else. He had a bump on his head, a mark. And I had put it there. I was so destroyed, so “sorry,” that eventually, once Brother was calm, he waddled over and hugged me at the urging of our mothers, trying to show me he was okay.
It’s the sort of thing that happens in childhood all the time. In adulthood too. We hurt someone because we aren’t paying attention. And we feel bad, because we don’t want to be that person who isn’t paying attention to the feelings of others. We don’t want to be that person who hurts someone else.
Or at least, that’s how I would have interpreted it once. But the prevalence of “sorry” in my life – the insidious way it’s made a home for itself inside my head – is beginning to make me question whether this is the only way to see things.
“Sorry” did something else for me that day too. It made me the center of attention. This isn’t how I intended it – at least I don’t think so. But my regret was so big, so desperate, that it required immediate forgiveness and attention (in the form of that hug) from the boy I’d injured. Saying “sorry” wasn’t enough. I needed to know everything was okay, that the world had been righted again. I learned that saying “sorry” did a lot for me – but it did hardly anything for the kid I’d hit with the door. I learned to NEED sorry.
Over the course of my childhood I became a veritable “sorry” machine. I became hyper-aware of any and every offense I had caused someone. Because of my reliance on sorry – my willingness to claim a mistake or to suggest that I’d wronged someone else, the standard of behavior became different for me than it did for others. For the most part, I was a quiet kid in school. I followed the rules and kept my mouth shut, keeping me off the radar and leaving me to my own private world. The majority of kids in our school were not this way. They were mostly rowdy, mostly loud, mostly “baddy bats.” Everyday in line from the classroom to recess they talked and pushed and shoved. Same thing on the way back, or on the way to the lunchroom. The teacher tried to quiet them down, to no avail. One day, I decided to talk. I don’t remember why. I whispered two or three words to Alex, and the teacher snapped around. “Is that SHARON talking in line?” she gasped. “Sharon?” I uttered a shy “Yes, Ma’m” and then immediately followed it up with a reflexive “I’m sorry.” “I’m glad you know when to apologize,” she said. She acted disappointed in me the rest of the day. Every day, all day, those other kids talked. None of them ever apologized. None of them were ever asked to. I had taught her – and most of the adults in my life – that I would tow the line. And so the boundaries of my freedom became different, tighter.
When Erin and I were in middle school, we went to church with a girl I’ll call Dawn. To a bunch of goody-goodies at age 12, Dawn was odd to say the least – odder, even, than the Dana Erin mentions in her previous post.* (She once painted her fingernails and then set them on fire, just to see if the “flammable” label was true. We were far too “safe” for activities like this, even though I now realize lots of kids did things like this.) The thing is, though, she was made to seem even MORE different from us by the way the adults in our church introduced her. We were given a “talking to” the first time she came to church – a speech to let us know that Dawn was different, that she came from a home with a single mother who was mentally ill (in exactly what way no one said). She was “troubled.” She was moody and dark; she pitched fits and stormed out of rooms. She talked back to figures of authority. She was decidedly unchurchy.
The truth was, we (Erin, Alex and I) had encountered “troubled” kids before. Plenty of the kids in our school could have been classified as “troubled” according to the vague definition of our youth ministers. The kids at our Unnamed Religious Private School pitched fits, were churlish and combative. They set things on fire just to watch them burn. But the thing was, those kids were the royalty at school. They WERE the people of privilege. At church, Dawn was the Other – the girl with a single mom (who didn’t come to church, mostly), who was decidedly less light-skinned than we were**. Because she was Other, she made our youth ministers and other figures of authority decidedly uncomfortable. They knew that by the dictates of Southern Baptist politeness they HAD to let her into youth group if she wanted to come. Having her there meant they were Good People. They were supposed to be showing kindness! And pity! In the name of God! But they really, really didn’t want to.
You know how I KNOW they didn’t want to? Because Dawn immediately became the sole responsibility of Erin, Alex, and myself. We were the “good” kids. We would “be kind” to her. We would “influence” her. But most of all, we would “look after” her so that the adults didn’t feel like they had to. Like good little robots, we would do FOR them the things they thought they OUGHT to do but didn’t really WANT to do. It was a lose-lose situation for all of us. Dawn didn’t get any of the healthy, normal companionship kids of that age need. She just got three friends who were trying really really hard to do what they were “supposed” to do. And we got tossed into a situation we couldn’t really parse or understand, with other people’s prejudices and fears bouncing around in our heads.
Dawn had a serious temper. She also lived in a house where tantrums were fairly standard and completely acceptable. She and her mother and grandmother communicated mostly – at least in our visits to her house – in shouting. Erin and Alex and I had all been taught to be appropriately repressed. When we got angry, we mostly didn’t talk about it, or only talked about it quietly to each other. Explosive rage was “inappropriate” and “bad” – something the Baddy Bats would do. Dawn expressed her rage – at everything and everyone – openly and with fairly hostile intent.
During her first year at the church, we took a trip to New Mexico (three states away! A REALLY long drive) for summer church camp. The drive was so long that it required an overnight stopover in Amarillo, TX, home of the play Texas – a musical (I think?) about pioneers hosted in the Palo Duro Canyon. The Palo Duro is deep, and we visited it at night – a group of gawky teenagers and tweens, restless and rowdy and excited to be out of the van for the day. Prior to the drive from the hotel to the canyon, one of our Sunday school leaders had sat down with Erin, Alex, and me to inform us that while we were at the play we should take care to “keep an eye” on Dawn. “You know how she can be,” she said, winning the award for most predictable sweeping generalization ever.
Shortly after we arrived at the Canyon, Dawn got angry with us about something. I don’t remember what. We were 13. We were mad at each other all the time. But because she was different from us, Dawn chose to storm off from the group rather than sit and stew in silence. And we couldn’t find her. We wandered through the crowds some, called her name, even looked back at the vans. She was nowhere to be found. It was time to report our error to the adults. They were angry, of course. Furious – you might say with Righteous Anger. And Disappointment (which was even worse). We had let Dawn out of our sight. We had made her angry. It was all Our Fault.
And so we apologized. We apologized to the youth leaders. When Dawn finally wandered back of her own accord, we apologized to her too. We said more “sorries” than I have ever said, and we said them all night. We felt genuinely bad. We had made Dawn angry. We weren’t supposed to upset her. We were supposed to patronize her. Because we were Good People! And Dawn was made to “sorry” too. She had wandered off, after all. She had put herself in danger. She had acted out of accord with the way good church kids act, and so she was made to say “sorry” too – sorry just for being who she was.
When I look at this situation as an adult, I realize that all those apologies I issued that night allowed my youth leaders – the ones whose attitudes towards a young girl had led to her ostricization in the first place – to continue to pat themselves on the back, convinced they’d done a “good deed” in allowing such a troubled girl to be in their exclusive group. It was their job as adults – not mine as a teenager – to recognize that the tensions we experienced with Dawn were more a result of their own prejudices than Dawn’s actual behavior. Had we not been taught that she was “special”, we might have come to consider her a friend rather than a project to help us win a gold star in our crowns.
“Sorry” helped everyone maintain the status quo. Someone had to be “sorry,” and so it was us. If no one was sorry, then that would mean all of our assumptions about the situation were wrong. It would mean stopping to think, parsing the situation, and reexamining what we thought about the way the world worked. The adults in our lives (our church lives) wanted nothing more than to avoid all that parsing and reexamination, and so they accepted our “sorries” and allowed us – me, Erin, Alex, and Dawn – to take all the blame.
“Sorry” taught me to take responsibility for things that were not really my fault. It taught me to carry on my shoulders the weight that everyone else refused.
I have plenty, plenty more to say about this. This dynamic has worked this way in so many corners of my life, and I’ve only addressed one so far. But I worry that this post is getting too long, so I’m going to stop and post for now. Maybe Erin will have some other examples of how “sorry” functioned as a barrier? I don’t know. I hope. But even if we go on to other topics, I’m going to come back to this one. Because it crops up again and again until I have given up on “sorry” almost entirely, and I want to be able to show you exactly why. To show you why we need to rethink the word and its implications, the ways we try to use it as a “magic word” to escape the difficult task of thinking.
*When I talk about how “odd” Dawn was to us, keep in mind that she was “odd” to a bunch of privileged middle-class white girls who had the luxury of extremely extremely stable families. I completely acknowledge my privilege here. Hold on, cause that’s going to be part of the main point – how I and the adults in my life handled that privilege.
** I am intentionally vague here. I have no clue as to Dawn’s racial make-up. Her mother was white, but we knew only that. So there was, of course, constant speculation at church – among the adults – about who (or “what”) her father might have been. This speculation Othered her even more than her class status or her single mom.