I say “I’m sorry” a lot.
Most of the time, I don’t need to say it because I haven’t done anything wrong. Most of the time, I don’t even know the one I’m saying it to.
Most of the time, it’s not an apology. It is something else.
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“I’m sorry” is the most powerful phrase in the English language.
Not that “I love you” is anything to sneeze at. But “I love you” underlines and affirms. It makes you and the one you’re addressing more real. (Here is where it gets a little philosophical.)
Example: back in high school and college, I was obsessed with a few bands that seemed a little off the radar. (To be fair, I lived in Mississippi, where “off the radar” basically meant “not Whitney Houston or Garth Brooks”.) I collected albums, CDs, singles, posters, anything I could get my hands on, anything to prove to myself and others that these people and their music really existed, that something so profound–profound to me, at least–was present in the universe. I liked the thought of folks finding my stash of goods a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years down the road and knowing that long ago, gods roamed the earth. Or if not gods, at least guitarists with interesting haircuts.
The memorabilia I collected was my way of making the music I loved more real, more permanent. Saying “I love you” does the same thing. When you tell someone that you love them, it’s like putting your two names in boldface. It says, “I’m here, and you’re here, and I’m happy that we’re here together at this moment in time.” It makes both of you more solid. It proves you exist.
Saying “I’m sorry” has the opposite effect. “I’m sorry” prioritizes, affirms, builds up one person at the expense of the other: the listener is strengthened, the speaker weakened. When you say “I’m sorry”, you’re saying “You feel hurt or angry or some other awful emotion, and I offer these words as salve, as balm, so that you can feel better. The world will have a little less me so that there can be a little more you.”
“I’m sorry” is self-effacing and self-erasing.
“I’m sorry” is empathy, not sympathy. “I’m sorry” didn’t become synonymous with the more formal, less sincere “I apologize” until the 19th century. Traditionally, “I’m sorry” has meant “I am full of sorrow”. It has meant, “I am distressed because you are distressed”.
Saying “I love you” self-aggrandizes, but being in love means self-sacrifice. Being in love means always being ready to say you’re sorry.
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I say “I’m sorry” when I pass homeless people asleep on the sidewalk, I say it when I see couples arguing in the street. Most of all, I say it to animals: lobsters piled in tanks at the grocery store, possums and armadillos lying dead on the side of the highway, stray dogs roaming the streets looking for food. (I said it a lot in Cuba.)
I know this does nothing aside from making me feel better, but I still do it. All the time. I can’t help myself.
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The world would be a marginally better place if we got in the habit of saying “I’m sorry” more often. All these divides–political, economic, sexual, whatever–would shrink, shrivel. When you empathize, you see how narrow the gap is that separates you from that guy in the Make America Great Again cap.