Sorry Not Sorry

by Leah Reich


Some years ago I had a roommate, a woman I knew through mutual friends. I’m not sure I was much of a good roommate at the time — I had my quirks, but then so did she. Anyway, one day we got into it, a terrible fight with both of us yelling cruel things and slamming doors on opposite ends of the hallway. Once things had quieted down, I apologized to her for my anger, for the things I’d said, for losing my cool entirely, for making her feel awful.

In return she said to me, “I’m sorry mean things came out of my mouth.”

I think about this sentence a lot, mostly to laugh. Sometimes I think about it more seriously, or at least I did this year when I got an apology of a similar sort — a bunch of words arranged very carefully to look at first blush like a terribly sincere apology, but which are the verbal equivalent of a mealy apple when subjected to even the slightest bit of pressure.

Look, it’s not like you don’t know this: An apology is an arrangement of words into a statement meant to evoke a very particular meaning. That meaning is, “I’m going to take responsibility for this thing, a thing I can name specifically because I’ve given it some thought like an adult with the ability to see things in a perspective other than my own. Yes, I’ve fucked up, as evinced by how shitty you feel right now. Yes, I want to say sorry. And yes, I want to make it better.” But it’s so hard to remember all this, especially when you’re receiving an apology, because the second you hear, “sorry,” your brain has a choice to make: Either stay very mad at this person, or forgive them immediately because the whole thing is so uncomfortable.

So of course, when you get a bad apology, all full of excuses and the passive voice and sleight of hand, it’s tempting to take it in that moment and then, later on when you’re done being relieved and can think straight again, to get very irritated. I should know: I still think sometimes about that apology up there, which I received something like a decade ago. But this year I learned a thing, or perhaps I didn’t learn it so much as finally accept it as an important officer in my emotional army.

In the first half of 2015, I had one of those heartbreaks that come mixed with a healthy dose of humiliation. The details are unnecessary, except to say that I was upset and mortified and really, really angry. I felt I’d been duped, used, and treated very shabbily. I wanted my rightful apology. I wanted words that would somehow make it all feel better. Of course there’s no such thing, but at the time I sincerely thought if I could only get this person to take responsibility, I’d be able to let it go.

Eventually I got an apology of sorts, but not the one I was looking for. Instead, I got an apology that contained a striking contradiction: It evaded responsibility and therefore didn’t tell the truth, but at the same time it did tell the truth. It made clear how incapable this person was of ever giving me what I wanted.

When someone obscures the truth in an apology, when they refuse to take responsibility, the irony is that it forces you to recognize the truth they’re trying to hide. The funny thing about the apology I got? The sender ducked responsibility because he was afraid of seeming like a bad guy who lets people down, but the very act of ducking responsibility made him precisely that. And it was up to me to see it.

So I did. A good apology wouldn’t have saved me, but a bad apology let me save myself.

When someone gives you a hot pile of garbage wrapped in a satiny “sorry” bow, take it as the gift it is. Right, I know, I’ve just told you to warmly accept a knotted up bag of dog shit after someone’s hurt you, but I’m serious. Save yourself the trouble of trying to get something better out of that person: This is the best they can give. They’re speaking the language they know, a language that doesn’t have much meaning if you think about the way that it’s been arranged for more than five seconds. It’s a lukewarm language, the taupe of tongues, the sad way people speak when they can’t bring themselves to be honest.

But what do you do, really, when someone is honest? Be fair now. Do you listen when someone tells you the truth? What if they tell you the truth you’re not ready to hear? The truth — which still often comes pre-packed in squishy words — often means having to do something we don’t want to do or are scared of. Like, say, let someone go. Not be with them. Allow them to be broken and flawed all on their own, without trying to fix them or the situation or, most stupidly, get them to live up to the potential we see in them and in us.

When I got the bad apology, I didn’t handle it exactly as I might have wished. I didn’t ignore it. Nor did I eviscerate it cleanly and cleverly. I fumbled it, a little, but in the fumbling I did see it for what it was: The truth I hadn’t wanted to hear. The truth that it was going to be up to me to stop wanting something, anything, from this person. To expect nothing and receive less. To stop trying to rearrange all the words into whatever it was I wanted to hear and instead hear exactly what was being said. Which, truly, was not much at all.

As an adult, I have definitely saved one person’s life, and maybe more. But in 2015, I saved myself an awful lot of trouble and time. My only regret is that it took me this long to get here.

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.