Walk the Walk

I recently wrote an article in my web site column, ‘The Daily Dose of Reason’, entitled ‘I’m So Sorry!’ The two ‘celebrities’ who inspired my commentary were none other than Lindsay Lohan (actress turned professional addict) and Levi Johnston (on-again/off-again boyfriend of Sarah Palin’s daughter). Lohan is constantly in legal peril; apologizing, getting herself in trouble again, and apologizing some more. Johnston publicly said insulting things about the Palin family that he later claimed were lies, and then ended up saying he was sorry. Here’s what I wrote about that:

‘When somebody says, ‘I’m sorry for what I did. It was totally wrong. But I was emotionally upset at the time,’ they’re telling you, in essence, ‘I can’t control my emotions, and I’m not even promising to do so in the future.’ Controlling your emotions doesn’t mean repressing or denying their existence, as is commonly thought. To control your emotions means to manage them, think about them and apply reason and logic to them. For example, ‘My feelings are strong right now. I very much want to do such-and-such. But it might not be right and I might later regret it. I’m going to think about this first. I’m going to weigh the pros and cons and evaluate whether my emotions are valid, partially valid, or maybe even groundless.’ This is what people who engage in flawed reasoning (and then end up ‘apologizing’ all over themselves) don’t do. Reason should always trump feelings. This doesn’t mean feelings are bad, or that reason is always correct. But facts and logic are the only means through which we can choose to indulge — or reject — our emotions.’ 

A few days later, I received this note from a reader: ‘I agree with what you say. But what about people who don’t apologize for their bad behavior?’ I responded with the old adage, ‘If you talk the talk, then walk the walk.’ If an apology is genuine, you have to prove it. Nobody can show they’re REALLY sorry unless they put it into practice. If someone says they’re sorry, the attitude should be, ‘Don’t apologize. Just change your behavior and we’ll be fine.’ This assumes, of course, that what the person did is, in fact, forgivable. Most things are, but something such as betrayal, for example, might be beyond forgiveness — even if you think the person is really sorry. Another example is if the offense isn’t all that great, but that it happens over and over again. Well, this may sound shocking to some, but it’s true: We are entitled to NOT forgive. We’re also entitled to say when enough is enough.

Of course, forgiveness is beside the point if a person’s not sorry. And you don’t really know if they are until they put their remorse into practice. It might take some time for the offending party to restore your confidence, and the offended party may choose to be patient, or to walk away. This is one choice for which you can’t hold the offending party responsible.

I see this a lot after an extramarital affair. Some spouses/partners decide they can forgive the affair, provided it never happens again. This sounds nice at first, but the next step becomes one of patience. For example, ‘You don’t trust me!’ ‘Well, what did you expect? You cheated on me. How can I trust you again, at least right away?’ You have to give it time. If the trust is irreparably damaged, and you just can’t get past it, then why waste your time staying in the relationship? You either trust, or you walk. The choice — and the responsibility — is yours.

To a lesser degree, the same thing applies to offenses like being chronically late, or repeatedly doing other inconsiderate things. If the offending party is not sorry, then consider trying an ’empathy exercise’: Let the person experience what he or she does to you. For example, let’s say your friend is always 30 minutes late, rudely keeps you waiting, and doesn’t even acknowledge it. What happens when you do the same thing back? If she doesn’t notice or care, then at least you know she’s not a hypocrite. Maybe you can even tolerate it (while you’re standing there cooling your heels) knowing that your lateness is also tolerated.

However, it’s more likely that the other person will be indignant that you’re late. Aha! Now you’re free to say, ‘Oh, I honestly thought you wouldn’t mind. After all, you’re late with me all the time.’ She now gets to empathize with you, i.e., feel some of your pain. Most of us are taught that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’ That might work nicely for the wrongdoers who count on you to make yourself a target by ‘turning the other cheek.’ But it’s not a very good deal for the rest of us, is it?