We all inevitably mess up and hurt those around us sometimes. While a simple “I’m sorry” sometimes works wonders, what can we do when sorry isn’t enough?
Making up for something we’ve done can be a steep task. Sometimes we feel so ashamed of our wrongdoings that we don’t even want to approach the person we’ve hurt or offended. Then, when we do muster up the courage to try, we can be met with an unpredictable response. Some people can quickly forgive, some seem to forgive but actually harbor resentment, and some have no interest in relieving you of your shame.
When I think about what makes a powerful apology, I think of someone whose intention expands beyond just alleviating their own guilt. I think of someone who comes detached and willing to patiently listen to understand how they’ve hurt someone else – someone who asks for a chance to make things right, rather than feeling entitled to forgiveness.
So, what stops us from making meaningful amends, and how can we improve our apologies?
1. Don’t Let Guilt Paralyze You
Sometimes, after we realize that we contributed to an unjust situation or wronged someone, instead of taking action, we freeze. Maybe we simply don’t know how to rectify the situation, or inwardly try to pretend we’ve done nothing wrong, but somehow our guilt gets in the way of doing anything about it.
The Baha’i writings warn against the paralyzing effects of guilt:
So too is paralysis engendered by guilt to be avoided; indeed, preoccupation with a particular moral failing can, at times, make it more challenging for it to be overcome. – The Universal House of Justice, 19 April 2013, p. 3.
If we sit too long with what we’ve done “wrong,” then we can get stuck. Rather than dwelling on how we feel about a situation, and getting caught up in ourselves, we can just start to adjust our behavior to avoid future mistakes.
2. Humble Yourself and Listen to What Others Need
We often get so caught up in guilt that we make up uninformed solutions for the harm we’ve created. For example, we might assume that a friend wants us to apologize profusely and have a long conversation about a microaggression, when in fact they just want us to acknowledge that we did something problematic, and educate ourselves to avoid future damage. Maybe this friend doesn’t want to have a deep conversation in which they have to spend copious amounts of emotional energy to help relieve our guilt.
The Baha’i writings put it this way:
O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself. Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power, whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 29-30.
We have to be careful to not act superior to others, even as we try to make up for our shortcomings. This can mean simply asking someone if they need anything from us before assuming that they need us to help them find forgiveness. It can mean letting someone explain how we’ve affected them, and then genuinely trusting their perspective.
As we find the ability to practice humility in all domains of life, we avoid hurting others to begin with. Not only will our peacemaking become more effective, but we will be better at moving through the world with gentleness and love.
3. Make Divine Amends
While treating each other’s hearts with care is important, each person only has a certain capacity for forgiveness – so no matter how thoughtful or sincere we are, there is always a chance that we won’t earn back their affection or trust. Ultimately, we have to seek God’s forgiveness.
Baha’is believe that seeking forgiveness is different when it comes to God, Who created each and every one of us, and has an extraordinary ability to forgive:
Turn unto Him, and fear not because of thy deeds. He, in truth, forgiveth whomsoever He desireth as a bounty on His part; no God is there but Him, the Ever-Forgiving, the All-Bounteous. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 87.
When we think of making up for our shortcomings, the most important forgiveness we need is God’s. Thinking about God’s infinite and unimaginable capacity for forgiveness deeply relieves us from the burden of our weaknesses. We can always rely on God, no matter how many mistakes we make.
Through making amends with God, maybe we can finally forgive ourselves for our imperfections. Our ultimate resolution is through God’s mercy.