The sunny colors of the Game of Life board lay in mocking contrast to the brewing clouds of tension above them. An accusation of a stolen turn had transformed the optimistic attempt at creating memories among four grade-school cousins into a showdown between two of us. My victory celebration was cut short by an executive decision to conclude the game, on account that my opponent had burst into tears — a sour end to the night for both parties.
Some missteps don’t result in spilled tears but in shattered glass. The music blasting through my earphones allowed my mind to wander, making my chore of loading the dishwasher a bit more bearable. I should’ve known that my negligence would result in disaster, though. Two of my mother’s new crystal glasses met their death on the lip of the granite countertop, conveniently right when their owner walked into the kitchen.
I’ve messed up enough times in my life to learn the worth of an apology, and with it, its unfortunate stipulations.
When we are wronged by someone, we often crave the efforts of them “making it up” to us. This subtle form of revenge is faintly concealed by a supposed reluctance to accept offerings of remorse, but truthfully, we all revel in the temporary superiority that the incident entitles us to. Those who did us dirty have to step more warily around us, offer us the last cheesy stick and refrain from requesting for favors from us anytime soon. There was no way in hell I was going to ask my mom to fork over shopping funds when she had witnessed me murder her glasses just hours ago.
But after the “sorries” are said, is it fair that we demand more? Granted, there are errors that can’t be fixed by slapping on a single verbal band-aid. Often, however, we expect too much, forcing every apology to become a window for luxurious reparations. The idea that “sorry doesn’t cut it” paints forgiveness as a nearly unattainable ideal. If people want to be forgiven, they should toil for it, bringing gifts to the altar and acting in subservience to the person they’ve hurt.
When we claim a constant state of victimhood, we use the past to shield ourselves from opportunities for growth. Enveloping ourselves in a self-imposed pity party has others tip-toeing around us, holding back from offering constructive criticism in fear of reopening our wounds. Instead of using our past pain to better ourselves, we relabel it as the present and ruminate in the permanence of our damage. The inability to learn and move on acts as an anchor, holding us far below what we could have become.
By blinding ourselves with the bygone wrongdoings of others, we render ourselves vulnerable to judgement and withering pity. To outsiders, we became one of those people who couldn’t move on, who was unable to realize their full potential. Sympathy seals the feedback loop, where we coddle ourselves further because others are already doing so. It’s inevitable that people will become tired of babying us, and when that happens, we despair our faded glory and loneliness we created for ourselves.
I had once childishly declared that efforts to prove the sincerity of apologies were never enough. My phone screen would remain cracked no matter how much my friend apologized. The memory of a friend’s vomit on my pants would linger despite three rounds in the laundry. I would still remember the harsh but well-meaning words of my family, even though they have apologized countless times.
Growing up has been the realization that forgiveness is less of a blessing to give and more of a halfway point to meet at. Just as I expect to be forgiven after I express my regret and clean up the mess I have made, I’ve learned to extend the same hand out to those around me, especially to the ones I care about most.
Discovering the significance of an apology has not made me blissfully ignorant to the prevalence of shallow versions meant to only gloss over the situation. Rather, it has enabled me to stop being enamored by pain, to stop picking open scars so that I can cocoon myself in weary gestures of penitence and transient coos of sympathy.
We’ve dragged down the worth of a simple apology by attaching the expectation of reparations. But saying sorry does cut it. We just have to realize the freedom we’ve been pining for has been in front of us all along, and live forward.
Sarah Heo writes the Friday column on the semblance of security. Contact her at [email protected].