Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Perhaps Elton John was onto something when he wrote that “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Some have misunderstood the original language of the Bible by translating it to say that “the love of money is the root of all evil”, for indeed, it is not–though to be sure, it is, as the original text suggests, a root of all kinds of evil; on this point there can be no dispute. But surely the root of evil is pride; C. S. Lewis is quite right in pointing out that the most evil person in the world is the one who is least aware of his own tremendous self-centeredness and pride.

So it is that we humans find it so difficult to admit our faults, to ask forgiveness, to say those two words, “I’m sorry.” We choke on them, for we understand that therein lies an admission of fault, of culpability, of wrongdoing on our part. We go to great pains to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are completely in the right, when quite often objectivity would demand a different view of matters. One calls to mind the inimitable Arthur Fonzarelli, a.k.a. “Fonzie”, who we picture going to comical lengths to avoid admitting that he was “wrrrr…wr….wr….wrrrrr…well, not exactly right.”

By the same token, though, there are some today who would leap to the opposite error: a willingness to utter a quick pseudo-apology in order to salve some situation. I was very interested to see the results of a poll taken prior to the conclusion of the U.S./Chinese standoff. It demonstrated that the older a person was, the less likely he/she was to say that the United States should apologize; in fact, the only age demographic in which a majority of respondents said that we should apologize to China was the 20-29 age group. Now, some might read this as encouraging news: the Gen X’ers are the least prideful among us!

But there is at least one other reading, and it is the one I choose, and if my speculation is true, the news is anything but encouraging. It seems to me that our post-modern society has rejected both the possibility of truth and the importance of striving to find it. It’s no shock that a common catch-word today is “whatever”; sadly, we are becoming a “whatever” society, and I fear that the attitude du jour is “whatever it takes to resolve a situation, do it, and hang the truth.” This is dangerous.

But is it always appropriate to profess sorrow merely to resolve a particular situation? To the situation in question. Sure, it is well enough for us to say that we are “sorry” in the sense that we regret the loss of life of the Chinese pilot; this is akin to saying to one’s little sister, “I’m sorry you’ve got the mumps.” The person expressing regret is not assuming any blame; he is merely empathizing with the stricken one. This is altogether appropriate as people who share the human condition.

It’s also even right to use the term “sorry” to describe our feelings regarding one of our planes landing on Chinese soil. Of course we’re sorry it happened! We have no desire to hand over our secrets to the Chinese (unless, I suppose, our initials are B.C. and there is money attached to the other end!). Of course we’re sorry it happened, from this perspective.

But neither of these apologies were apparently what the Chinese had in mind. It was their intent to extract from our government a “sorry” that had attached to it an admission of guilt and wrongdoing. And this kind of apology, short of some compelling proof of our violation of international law, would involve a cheapening of the concept of sorrow and a demeaning of the sincerity of our word as a nation.

This isn’t to say that the U.S. of A. is always right–far from it. There is a laundry list of national sins for which we ought to repent, to be sure. But the narrow question in this case is whether an apology is due the Chinese government, and the facts as we understand them don’t seem to bear out the necessity of this; in fact, there can be little question that the apology ought to be turned around the other direction, as the Chinese violated any number of tenets of international law in their (mis)handling of the situation.

A popular song a few years back went something like this: “whatever I did, whatever I said, I didn’t mean it; I just want you back with me.” This sorry song exemplifies the cheap “say whatever has to be said to get what you want” mentality that appears to have taken root in the soil of our psyche. We would be wise to expunge it from our thinking, and to be careful to speak clearly, humbly, and truthfully when engaged in affairs personal and national.

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