“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton

I was walking down Schermerhorn Street one afternoon recently.  Ahead of me was a slender black woman sporting a flowery Caribbean-style turban; she was accompanied by two young white children, a boy and a girl.

Photo: ucttrust.org.uk

When I first moved to Brooklyn back in the early 1980s, I commented to a neighborhood that I loved seeing that there were so many inter-racial marriages on the east coast, unheard of in my small hometown in California. My neighbor looked at me quizzically; by way of explanation I added, “I see dozens of black women out walking their light skinned children in the park every day!”

Roll your eyes, if you must (my neighbor did;)  Doggonit!  A nanny where I was from amounted to a stretch of rope tied to a barnyard post on one end and the waist of a child on the other!

In any event, the little boy in the trio ahead of me pinched the little girl walking next to him.  The girl turned to the woman (nanny OR mother) and complained.  The woman then turned to the boy and said, “Warren, say you’re sorry to your sister!”  Warren complied.  Yet, a moment later, he pinched the little girl again.

It struck me how hollowly “I’m sorry,” resonates in my ears these days; in fact,

“I’m sorry” often sounds something more like, “I don’t have any intention of changing my behavior and as a matter of fact, most likely I will do whatever I did again.  Why don’t YOU stuff YOUR feelings about my offense, and let me off the hook since I said the obligatory ‘I’m sorry.’ Then you and I can just go back to being the way we were, ok?”  And as shallow and meaningless as that makes our relationship, your acceptance of my apology will make ME more comfortable with my betrayal.  So, again… “I’m sorry.”

I’m not asking for an auto-de-fe when someone crepitates in a crowded room.  I’m just asking for a little bit of oversight when it comes to apologizing.  If you know you are prone to gas after a can of beans then refrain from consuming them before you get into, say, a game of Twister, thus making your later “I’m sorry” unnecessary.

Like the ubiquitous standing ovation on Broadway, I wonder if Americans are also apt to waaayyy overdo rushed apologies?  Maybe we could utilize some other phrase for our lesser transgressions; “I’m aware that I stepped on your toes,” or “I wish I had said that differently;” or “That was wrong of me to cut in front of you” or simply rely on the classic, “Pardon me.”

Standing Ovation

The word “sorry” indicates a feeling of deeper regret, of sorrow and contains, for me at least, an implied desire to begin the process of changing whatever conscious (or subconscious) motivator ignited said offensive behavior to begin with.

I recently experienced the shattering of a trust between myself and a longtime, treasured friend.  He freely admitted his wrongdoing… after it was discovered.  And in every email and conversation following the discovery, his oft-repeated “I’m sorry” became more and more odious.  I doubted he was sorry for anything more than the inevitable shift that for me, at least, had seriously cracked the foundations of our relationship.  He was not, I think, sorry for what he had done, but very sorry for himself that he had been caught.

I reflected on how often he had reiterated to me over the years, “I need to lose some weight,” or “I need to cut myself off after my third beer,” or “I have to start exercising.”  He could now add to that list, “I need to stop hiding things from my closest friend.”

Step number 9 in the Twelve Step Program is “…make direct amends to people you have harmed…”  Listen, if my friend were to make it to Step 9 (or to some other hard won new point of view, be it AA or Weight Watchers) and approach me to make amends then, I would consider that a serious “I’m sorry.”  That’s an “I’m sorry” with some teeth.  THAT would show commitment to change.  THAT would show an attempt to find a deeper understanding of what gave rise to his irresponsible behavior to begin with and hopefully arm him with some sort of plan to assure it wouldn’t happen again.   THAT would convince me future friendship was possible.

The woman with the children ahead of me just repeated “Say you’re sorry, Warren,” following another attack on his sister.

He does.  But none of us are buying it.

I wonder what would happen if, say, some head of state were to issue a “We’re sorry” to the world for some national transgression, current or historic?  Is there a nation in existence that doesn’t have something to make amends for?  The bravery of such a statement!

We confess to having made a terrible and morally unjustifiable act.  It may not have been us, precisely.  It may have happened generations ago.  But we acknowledge it and we are sorry for the pain and misery it has caused.  And we are ready to begin a journey towards a complete spiritual reparation, fully committed for however long that process takes.

I doubt such an “I’m sorry” will be part of any political party’s platform soon, but I like the ring of it, nonetheless.

Listen up, Warren.

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Michael Milton

Michael Milton worked as an Associate Producer with Marty Richards, Sam Crothers and Robert Fryer at The Producer Circle Co. in New York City for over twenty years. Broadway: THE LIFE (2 Tony Awards),...

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