One of my favorite sayings (I don’t know the author) is, ‘If you subsidize something, you’ll get more of it.’
I’ll expand the saying to a wider realm than economics: ‘If you excuse something, you’ll see more of it.’
Excuses, of course, can be valid or invalid.
If it takes a man twice as long to walk across the room because he only has one leg, then it’s a valid excuse. But if he shoots an innocent person when he gets to the other side of the room, his disability is no excuse.
Two dictionary definitions of ‘excuse’ are as follows:
‘Attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); seek to defend or justify.’
‘Release (someone) from a duty or requirement.’
We excuse ourselves, or others, all the time. ‘Yes, I know he was rude. But he had a bad day.’ Or: “He has personal issues.”
Did the bad day cause the rudeness? Actually, no. A person can choose to be polite, regardless of the kind of day he has. Some people have bad days and say, ‘Please bear with me. I’m having a bad day, but I’ll do the best I can.’ Simply doing so is arguably a form of manners—an attempt to acknowledge how you might come across to someone who deals with you regularly.
What about personal issues? Maybe the man has issues because he’s so rude and consequently doesn’t get what he wants out of others, or life in general.
A lot of people go through life with envy, resentment or some other chip on their shoulders. As a result, they feel ‘excused’ across the board. ‘I got a bad break in life, so I’m entitled to act the way I want.’ This isn’t what they say, but it’s what they feel.
The behavior of such people is often reinforced, strengthened or otherwise tolerated by those around them. People with chips on their shoulders count on your fear of conflict–or fear of them–to get away with things they’d never permit you to do.
When you make excuses for yourself, or others, then you have no business complaining or feeling resentful when that behavior reappears on a regular basis.
It’s a contradiction. If the person’s excuse really is valid—as the man with only one leg taking longer to get across the room—then there’s nothing to feel resentful about.
If the excuse isn’t valid—and many excuses are not—then you have no business being upset when you facilitate the excuse in the first place. ‘That’s OK,’ you say to the person who was rude, knowing full well that no valid explanation or excuse was even offered. When you say, ‘That’s OK’ and don’t mean it, you’re essentially speaking in code: ‘Do it again.’
Sometimes people struggle over whether to forgive another’s transgression. ‘Do I excuse her, or not?’ Usually this dilemma arises when the transgression was mild or moderate, not horrible (as in deceit, or betrayal).
The best way to resolve this dilemma is to ask two questions.
One, ‘Is this transgression anything I have ever done? Or could have done?’ If not, then you’re probably dealing with a different type of person from yourself. Perhaps someone with different values, principles or priorities. Maybe you don’t need a person like this in your life. If the transgression is something you have been guilty of, then perhaps it’s easier to understand and cut the person some slack.
The other question to ask is for the person who transgressed: ‘Don’t apologize. The best way to show you’re sorry is not to let it happen again.’ The sincerely remorseful person will accept this, and even appreciate it. If she truly intended not to repeat the thing she’s sorry for, then she’ll be delighted that you’re giving her another chance. If she really, truly and honestly doesn’t feel like she should have to apologize—well, then this request will be greeted with resentment and/or confusion.
I’m not suggesting it’s always right or always wrong to forgive transgressions. However, I do suggest that you excuse in a selective and objective way. Don’t excuse indiscriminately. Try to remember that while we’re not responsible for other people’s actions, we are responsible for the psychological environments we create, including the kind of people we attract or repel.
Excuse something, and you’ll see more of it. So make sure you’re OK with it before you do so.
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