I think that the older I grow, the less honest I become. I don’t mean that I outwardly lie more frequently, it’s just that where I used to be an outspoken, belligerent prick, these days I’m silent more often than not. That statement is probably odd to those who look at me and wonder, “Christ, if he holds his tongue today, what must he have been like before?” An example will probably work better than a description.
When I started 7th grade, it was in a new school, in a new town, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I lived on a deep cul-de-sac, and had to walk a half-a-mile to my bus stop. Along the way, I passed the house of a child whose name I cannot remember, but who had an overbearing moose of a mother. To translate it into nerd terms: she was Gollum, and her child was the ring, her “Precious.” As an adult, I now feel sorry for him, as he probably had very little control over his life. Back then, sadly, I only saw a child that didn’t play well with others. Little did I know that it was probably because he wasn’t allowed to.
One morning as I passed their house, the mother was sending him off to school and was outside in pink pajamas and a pink robe. Because I was nothing short of a little shit, without provocation I shouted out, “Look, a pink elephant! How rare!” In contrast of her robe, her face became definitively red. From embarrassment or anger I couldn’t tell, but my guess would be it was a decent combination of the two.
When I returned home from school, either my mother or my father was waiting for me; I cannot remember which. The stern message I received was: The “Pink Elephant” called, was quite unhappy, and I had to go apologize or suffer yet-to-be-determined consequences.
Frustrated and early-teen angry, I fumed and cried “Unfair! She’s a horrific beast of a human being!” but eventually marched my butt down to her house and rang the doorbell. When the woman appeared, in my most contrite voice I said, “I’m sorry you were offended by my comment this morning.” She nodded, and I left.
I returned home to find she had already called my parents; “Nathan apologized for making such a rude comment, and I accepted his apology.”
This offended me. I turned on a dime and marched my now even-angrier early-teen self back to her house and re-rang the doorbell. When she answered—surprise on her face at seeing me once more—I clarified my statement: “I didn’t apologize for calling you a pink elephant, I said I was sorry you were offended. I stand by what I said this morning.”
I left her standing with a wide-open jaw.
I sometimes think I was a smarter child than I am an adult. Yes, I could be a miserable little cunt, but at the same time… well, there’s something to be said for raw honesty. Of course, “raw honesty” brings with it the concept of Karma. When I tie certain events in my life together, I can usually find the “tat” that went with the “tit” which came before it. Case in point, two times when I apologized and had the moment defeated.
I’ve been through a couple less-than-stellar breakups in my lifetime, one of which occurred with a woman who was a regular customer at a comedy club I used to perform at. She was dumping me, and when we parted ways I told her, “This isn’t going to be fun for me, so please, one favor: don’t contact me, OK?” Since I wasn’t in control of the breakup, I wanted to maintain some semblance of power over what was happening in my life; I wanted the separation to be as permanent as possible. Carrying on as friends like nothing was wrong wasn’t a viable scenario in my game plan.
Unfortunately, she didn’t adhere to this honor code and would call me randomly. She didn’t want to get back together, probably, but she wasn’t 100% positive, how was I doing, no, we shouldn’t get back together, maybe, but she just wanted to talk to me… On my end, it was what the kids call “emotionally trying.”
By the time I was slated to return to the comedy club where we met, things were fairly strained between us. I had been alternately ignoring and taking her calls and felt like a yo-yo tied to her whims. The week before my arrival, I sent what I thought was a respectful little email: “Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but I’m coming to town, and I know you like hanging out at the comedy club, but it would mean a lot to me if for just this one weekend you wouldn’t. If I could be allowed to just slip in and out without having to deal with the emotions of the breakup, it would be a lot easier on me. Thanks.”
Naturally, she not only showed up on the first night, but did so with her new boyfriend in tow. Her attitude, as she later explained, was, “Hey, I hang out here and shouldn’t have to stay away just because you can’t deal with it.” Well, I could deal with it, and did so easily. I thought the move very petty, and it actually was relieving to see her be so selfish and childish. To make matters even easier, after that weekend she went on MySpace and angrily blogged about what a jerk I was and how she was above the petty emotions I had. In my eyes, it was the perfect “Thanks, I needed that to get over you” move.
Several years went by, and I attended the wedding of one of my oldest friends. At one point while we visited, my friend asked about my ex. At that moment, surrounded by joyous people celebrating love and union, I had an alcoholic’s moment of clarity (kudos to you, Pulp Fiction). I decided I didn’t want any bad blood in my past, and that I should reach out to her. I didn’t want to be friends, or even become a casual acquaintance, but I did feel that as things had ended somewhat sloppily, that little mess could be tidied up.
Riding the high of my good mood, I sent a very little note stating, “I’m sure there were points in the breakup where I acted poorly, and I’m sorry for any behavior of mine that may have been perceived as hurtful.”
The response I got was “Apology accepted,” along with a smiley face.
While I didn’t think I had been apologizing to hear it in return, in retrospect I realized that was indeed the case. I had expressed regret for my actions not because I believed I had done her any wrong, but because I assumed that opening a dialogue might pave the way to a better closing note than had previously sounded. When that moment didn’t arrive—when I wasn’t told she was sorry for not honoring any of my wishes or for flaunting her current fuck-toy in front of me—I was… to be honest, I don’t know how I felt. I wasn’t hurt or angry, I wasn’t really surprised… if anything it made sense. It gave me insight into what the pink elephant must have felt when I not only assailed her without provocation, but also refused to acknowledge the inappropriate nature of my actions.
In both cases, I had acted with selfish intent; my words a wolf in sheep’s clothing. With the pink elephant, they were nothing more than a way of skirting the issue and offering further attack; with my ex they were an attempt to trick her into asking forgiveness of me. My actions were entirely inappropriate in each situation, because apology should come from a point of genuine emotion or reason. That way, if it is not reciprocated, no offense is taken.
I make that last statement, because it is one of the most natural of human exchanges; if two people have a disagreement or a spat, one will eventually say, “I’m sorry,” causing the other to respond in kind, “I’m sorry, too.” When the second person forgoes that responsibility, it leaves the first person hanging. I know, because I’ve been there.
A friend and I got into a row, and stopped talking to one another. Though his hand in the matter was almost as tainted as mine, I knew I had done wrong by him. I felt manning up and apologizing was the right thing to do, and did so. I don’t know if he mulled it over, but eventually we began speaking again and remained friends. The thing is, he never apologized for his part in the disagreement; I never got an “I’m sorry, too.” As petty as it may make me sound, I’ve always remembered that fact, even years later.
Between those two moments—with my ex and with the friend—I learned the valuable lesson mentioned earlier: Never apologize to hear the phrase repeated your way. With the ex, I didn’t feel I had anything to be sorry for, but was subconsciously interested in hearing words of contrition from her. When she wasn’t remorseful, I was offended, but later realized it was my fault for entering the situation with disingenuous intent. Conversely, I apologized to my friend because I knew full well I had done harm and had to own up to it. When he refused to acknowledge his actions, I wasn’t offended. I had done what I thought was right and could now exist with a clear conscious.
(The probability exists that he sleeps fine at night, too, feeling justified in his actions. Character flaws wear many faces.)
So, what then is the point of my rambling here? I guess the idea that apology is about absolution, and amends. You apologize because it relieves an ache in your soul, or because it is the honorable action. And that said, the best way to avoid an apology is to avoid the situation leading into it. This is why, as I age, I am more and more silent. Had I never called the bitter woman a “Pink Elephant,” had I let the ex act however she wanted, while distancing myself on my own terms and not demanding anything of her, I would have lost nothing. The bitter woman in no way impacted my life; I went out of my way to impact hers. My ex was out of my life; I went out of my way to re-enter hers. In both cases, the fault landed with me.
Apparently there is a reason silence is sometimes known as virtuous.