The wise French have a saying: “Qui s’excuse, s’accuse.” He who apologizes accuses himself. It is true that there are many of us who feel perpetually guilty and spend our time scurrying around apologizing, often for actions that are not particularly egregious. This simply gives others the opportunity to accuse, and does not really help us change our behavior.
Then there are those who are always accusing others. They are not able to alter their behavior because they believe everything is somebody else’s fault. It is because of their mother or their father, or their boss, that they are failing. Often these are the really guilty ones who have found the convenient method of projecting their guilt and accusing others rather than facing up to their own behavior. As the gospel says, “ Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
I remember how my first husband, who was having an affair, would enter the room, when he came home late after some tryst or the other. He would look around to see what he could criticize: the carpet needed vacuuming or there was a spot on the sofa, so that I was immediately on the defensive and started apologizing for minor misdemeanors when obviously it should have been he. This was not very helpful to either of us.
I have found that in teaching writing one of the best exercises is to get students to write from the point of view of someone they are in conflict with. It makes for a much more balanced and believable picture and enables the writer to get rid of the role of the victim in the story. Victims don’t work well in stories or in life. We need conflict for a story to work and if someone is unable to stand up for themselves conflict disappears.
Certainly apologizing does not make us change our behavior. We have all probably seen those –could one call them advertisements? in the subway—First you see the bouquet of roses and then you see the coffin. Someone has apologized and apologized again giving flowers but in the end beaten someone to death.
So how to know when an apology is necessary? Or even wise. We need to know ourselves, of course, to take a good look at our behavior, cast the beam from our eye. If we can see it is wrong, don’t apologize but rather, change the behavior which is, of course, a great deal more difficult to do. Actions in life as in fiction often speak much louder and tell us more about the character, than just empty words.
( With thanks to a friend for this suggestion!)
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.