Is “Turning the Other Cheek” Really the Way to Go?

A few years ago I wrote an article entitled “I’m So Sorry!” The two celebrities who inspired my commentary back then were none other than Lindsay Lohan (actress turned professional addict) and Levi Johnston (former on-again/off-again fiancée of Sarah Palin’s daughter and father of their son). Lohan spent a lot of time in legal peril; apologizing, getting herself in trouble again, and apologizing some more. Johnston publicly insulted the Palin family, and then later claimed the insults were lies. He ended up saying he was sorry.

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, that they can’t control their emotions and that they can’t promise that they won’t do the same thing in the future.

Controlling your emotions doesn’t mean repressing or denying their existence. It means managing them and applying 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 weigh the pros and cons and evaluate if my emotions are valid.” People who engage in flawed reasoning (and end up apologizing all over themselves) don’t do this. Feelings aren’t always bad, and reason isn’t 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. She wrote, “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 prove it. This assumes, of course, that what the person did is forgivable. Most things are, but something like betrayal might be beyond forgiveness — even if you think the person is sorry. This may sound shocking, but it’s true: We are entitled to NOT forgive when enough is finally enough.
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 time, and you may choose to be patient or to walk away. This is one choice for which you can’t hold the offending party responsible.

I often see this after an extramarital affair. Some spouses/partners decide they can forgive, 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?” If the trust is irreparably damaged, then why waste your time staying in the relationship? You either trust, or you walk.

To a lesser degree, the same thing applies to repeatedly doing inconsiderate things. If the offending party is not sorry, then consider trying an “empathy exercise”: For example, let’s say your friend is always late, and doesn’t acknowledge it. What happens when you do the same thing? If she doesn’t notice or care, then at least you know she’s not a hypocrite. Maybe you can even tolerate it, knowing that your lateness is also tolerated.

However, it’s more likely that the other person will be indignant. Now you’re free to say, “Oh, I honestly thought you wouldn’t mind. After all, you’re late 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 be a target by “turning the other cheek.” But it’s not a very good deal for the rest of us, is it?



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