An honest desire to help allows us to say “I’m sorry.” I am so sorry for your loss. For the devastation. For oppression. For your wounds that won’t heal and your hurt that has no remedy. If we are one with those we want to help, it becomes natural to express our sorrow for what has hurt them. We learn the power of responsibility without blame. I may not be at fault, but we are here now and I am responsible.
From racial oppression, to fires and failed levees, there can be no authentic recovery without “I’m sorry.”
Yet, we often run like hell from expressing our regret for the same reasons we are scared to help. We are afraid we will go in and not be able to get out. We will enter some hell of blame without hope of healing. But when we are willing to own the past, declare that we too can see the failures, injustices and flaws in our systems — and even own our own callous misunderstandings, we open the door for peace and reconciliation.
Just as many of our systems are designed to assess the worth of individuals we help, so too are they designed to avoid blame. Whole departments inside organizations are devoted to parsing how to speak about mistakes and devastation, crafting ways to talk about the unthinkable while making certain to skirt responsibility. Whole institutions are devoted to denying history in order avoid reparations. Trying to outlaw what we abhor while we duck our role in it.
When I am invited to help, I try to have some grasp of the losses that came before, the graves below the ground I stand upon. Imagining the urns of hurt and ashes of sorrow that people are still carrying. When we work with people in community we are always on hallowed ground. It is necessary to begin by acknowledging what came between us in the past, so that we can be together now.
This is ancient wisdom. “That which we bring forth will save us. That which we do not bring forth will destroy us.” *
For those who push back on acknowledging pain, on offering up sentiments of sorrow and regret — I ask this: When you go to a burial, to see a friend put into the ground, do you not say to those left behind “I am so very sorry for your loss.”? You don’t find that so very hard. It would be unthinkable to do otherwise. Acknowledgement is the least we expect in the face of grief.
At the same time we must not be self indulgent in our desire to express remorse. Just as funerals are not our moments to perform our regrets, we cannot grab the spotlight from those hurting to shine on about how good we are.
The power of I’m sorry is to open the door to a different relationship with the past and with one another today. Deep regret is not a quagmire. It’s the solid foundation on which new structures of togetherness can be built.
*(The Gnostic Gospels: Elaine Pagels / Gospel of Thomas / Nag Hammadi Gospels)