Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Apologizing as a Weakness or a Strength

An often repeated statement is that apologizing is a sign of weakness. Another statement is that apologizing does not change what has already happened. Given recent political events, I have begun to wonder if there is any truth to such statements. I begin with one of my favorite poems – Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (see http://www.online-literature.com/shelley_percy/672/) in which the following words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye might, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Who is really strong? Hitler might be said to be responsible for the deaths of some 60 million or more people in the period around World War II, two thirds of whom were civilians (see http://worldwar2-database.blogspot.com/2010/10/world-war-ii-casualties.html). In spite of such horrific numbers, there is no Aryan race dominating the world, the Jewish people still survive, and Germany is a peaceful and thriving nation. Perhaps the strong are those who learn from the past, as my older and wiser brother often reminds me. Perhaps there are too few of those people … perhaps due to how history becomes colored by ambition, bias, local interest and a narrow interpretation of facts. Perhaps.

Whom do you consider strong? I consider my parents (may they rest in peace and their tribe increase) as among the strong. My mother was born in a rural log cabin in LA (lower Alabama) and weighed only two and a half pounds at birth. She lived into her seventies in spite of many chronic illnesses, and she managed to raise four children who have become responsible adults (my apologies for the implied self-praise). My father stayed married to her throughout many trials and tribulations for about sixty years (he survived her by only 100 days), and he managed to return to his rabbinical studies and fulfill his lifelong goal of becoming a rabbi late in life in spite of many setbacks. They were strong in so many ways, yet they readily admitted weaknesses and apologized for things they regretted doing on many occasions.

The people I know often apologize for things they have done and later regret (my apologies for stating the obvious). Does that make them weak? I think it reflects a particular strength – namely the strength of knowing their weaknesses and recognizing their missteps. On the other hand, a refusal to never apologize reflects a certain kind of weakness – namely, a reluctance to admit to being human and subject to the imperfections that affect everyone. I occasionally recall some of the statements of O. K. Bouwsma, one of my mentors in graduate school. He noted that the people blamed for polluting a river usually seemed to be those living upstream. Put otherwise, Bouwsma would say that a common problem involved the wrongheaded confidence that one has in one’s own beliefs. It could be the case that one knows less that one is inclined to believe that one knows. It could be the case that while one cannot undo the past that one can do better in the future. It could be the case that we can all become teachers in the sense of Rabbi Spector: the voice that comforts, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away.