On Apologizing


A little over a month ago, I moved into a new apartment in a new neighborhood. It has been a stressful time; I’ve been busy with work, and I haven’t physically been in my apartment for long enough to truly think of it as my new home. There are 5 other units in my building. I’ve met three of my neighbors and their households (the ones right next door and the ones directly downstairs). As for the rest, well, we’ve been ships in the night.

And last week, I ROYALLY screwed up. Like, let-my-neighbor’s-cat-out-into-the-night-because-I-thought-it-was-a-stray screwed up. Here’s how it happened.

My roommate knocked on my bedroom door late Thursday night because he had been hearing noises in the stairwell for a couple of hours. We opened our front door to see a cat on the landing. My roommate and I are no strangers to cats; between us, we’ve fostered 6 separate pairs of cats over the last three years, some of which had emotional issues and minor health problems. So upon seeing this cat, we decided to do a quick check on her; she had no collar and no microchip that we could feel, but she was friendly and seemed healthy, if a little underweight. Her claws hadn’t been trimmed in a while. Clearly she wasn’t feral, but she also didn’t seem like a house cat.

We knocked on doors in our building and ascertained that the cat didn’t belong to three out of our five neighbors. The neighbors on the first floor had their lights off (there are frosted glass inlays on all of the doors in our building), which is understandable, because it was approaching midnight on a Thursday. So if we didn’t see or hear signs of activity, we didn’t knock. Everyone else in the building has been living there for at least a year, and those we spoke with said that they didn’t know of anyone in the building who had a cat that looked like the one on our landing. However, there was a cat that belonged to one of the couples in the building next door, and said couple had a habit of letting their cat out.

After debating for a while, my roommate and I decided against bringing a strange cat into our apartment. We opened the lobby doors, let the cat out, and went to bed.

The following afternoon, as I prepared for a concert I was giving that evening, I heard a vigorous knocking on the door. It was our neighbor from the first floor, whom I’d never met. She asked if I’d seen her cat. My stomach just about fell to my feet. I admitted that I had indeed seen a cat, and that I had let her out because I thought she was a stray. Understandably, my neighbor was upset. I said I was sorry and I’d help her look. She looked at me like she wanted me to die in a fire. Which, if I were in her shoes, is probably how I would feel.

I spent the rest of the afternoon feeling miserably guilty and poking around the underbrush in my dress clothes as I listened to the cat’s owner alternately panicking, asking passersby about the whereabouts of her cat, and spewing vitriol against her “stupid bitch of a neighbor.”

Ultimately, everything turned out fine, because the cat did what cats generally do: she wandered ten feet south of the lobby doors and hunkered down under some bushes for the night. She was unscathed and went home safe.

But the fact remains that I made a decision based on incomplete information, and it turned out to be the wrong decision. In carrying out the decision, I caused another human being significant distress, and in the end, my intentions and justifications for my actions don’t matter. I wrote my neighbor a formal apology (which was an extremely difficult thing to do, for reasons that I’ll get into in a minute) and slipped it under her door, and I haven’t heard from her since. The silence is kind of awful, but it has prompted some thoughts on the act of apologizing.

  1. Apologies need to go beyond “I’m sorry.”
  2. An effective apology does two things: 1) assumes responsibility, and 2) relinquishes control. My neighbor is completely justified in feeling entitled to an apology. However, having apologized, I am not entitled to forgiveness. I can bare the entirety of my tortured and remorseful soul to her, and she can choose not to say “It’s okay.” And I have to accept that.
  3. Apologizing also requires an immense amount of vulnerability; if you’re in a position where you’ve wronged someone and are delivering an apology, you are probably feeling pretty terrible yourself. Instinctively, you want to defend yourself and your actions, to give yourself an emotional out. But an apology is only an apology if you acknowledge your culpability; if your goal is to show that you’re sorry, couching self-defense into your apology is counterproductive. You have to acknowledge that you’ve messed up, without stroking your own ego to make yourself feel better about the fact that you messed up. As soon as you do that, you can begin the process of alleviating guilt.
  4. This leads to the actual apology. Personally, I believe that written apologies are more effective if you’re dealing with a relative stranger. Verbal apologies work better when you’re in a position to sit and talk something through with someone closer: a friend, partner, or colleague. In this case, I had never met this woman before. And based on the fact that our non-relationship has progressed to a non-relationship in which I am “that bitch who let her cat out,” we are probably never going to speak again, let alone be friends. So, instead of inviting her over to tea, I bought a nice card and wrote a formal apology.An effective apology contains the following:

    -The words “I’m sorry.”

    -An acknowledgement of the offending words/actions.
    -Empathy. This is the hardest part, and this is where I found myself falling into the self-defense trap. For example: “I caused you pain, even though that wasn’t my intention” is not effective, because it makes the apology about you instead of about the person you’re apologizing to. “I caused you pain. There is no excuse for that, and I am deeply sorry” is an effective empathetic statement. It contains acknowledgement and remorse, without the buffer of self-defense.

  5. There is no guarantee of forgiveness. I already said this in point 2, but it’s worth repeating. Once you’ve apologized, you’ve done everything in your power to right the wrong you inflicted. Past that, it’s not up to you anymore. Your apology could sit unacknowledged for the rest of your life, and depending on the enormity of what you’ve done, it sucks to varying degrees. But that’s how it is sometimes. At least, if you apologize and you do it effectively, you have a greater chance at forgiveness, and at repair of a relationship (or even the beginning of one). It’s better than not apologizing at all.



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