On Apologizing

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I once apologized to an empty chair.

“I am so sorry,” I said with pathos, after accidentally hip-checking the armrest of a seat while exiting a plane. When I noticed no one was sitting in it, that’s when I thought: Okay Hilary, time to get a grip.

I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and a card-carrying Compulsive Apologizer. I said “Sorry” to friends as a way of saying “Hello” on the phone. “Sorry, hi, sorry,” as if what? I should have called them earlier? Or shouldn’t be calling them at all? What was I apologizing for? I apologized for showing up at office hours of my grad school professors, said “Sorry” for needing their help, taking up their time. I said “Sorry” when I reached for something in the grocery store freezer that someone’s grocery cart blocked me from accessing. “Sorry,” I said, before and after expressing a point of view that opposed. “Sorry, but I see it differently.  Sorry, sorry.” I was apologizing for my existence.

Apologizing to that empty seat was a wake-up call.  I decided to experiment. I started replacing “I’m sorry,” with “Thank you.” And in the vast majority of cases, it worked. “Thank you,” I now said, reaching past grocery cart to ice cream, as if I were thanking someone for allowing me to get by—which in effect, I was.  I started saying, “Thanks for taking my call,” “Thank you for your time, “Thanks for listening,” instead of apologizing, and it seemed to infuse a sense of bonhomie into interactions. People got to say, “you’re welcome,” they got to be beneficent as opposed to put out. When we apologize, we’re setting it up that we did something wrong, and those prone to feeling miffed can take us up on our offering, descending into their own toxic sense of umbrage. If I say “I’m sorry” to you for something incidental, and not in fact worthy of an apology, what dynamic did I just create between us? Do you have to absolve me? Forgive me? Have I placed the burden of my own self-esteem in your unwitting hands? You were just standing there staring into the grocery store freezer and now you have to forgive me for wanting a carton of Ben and Jerry’s?

“Thank you” thrilled me, for the most part, as a replacement for “I’m sorry,” although there were times it didn’t quite fit. Flash forward five years from the moment I apologized to an empty seat to another scene of exiting a plane. This time, I have four young children in tow, nursing twins affixed to my breasts inside a fabric double-sling, with their ungainly car seats hanging from my shoulders like I was some kind of pack mule. My preschooler and kindergartner trotted ahead of me down the aisle, both swinging knapsacks filled with coloring books, stuffed animals, juice boxes and snacks. We were a clunky, bumpy, inconvenient entourage making our way off the plane, and I thanked people for letting us get by. “Thank you, thanks,” I said to the gentleman accidentally bopped in the elbow by my daughter’s Little Mermaid knapsack. But when I said “Thank you” to the woman I whacked in the shoulder with the hard plastic of a car seat, well, that should have been an apology. And a real one.  Sometimes when we self-correct, we over-rotate. And in that moment, I realized I had.

There is a considerable difference between a sincere humble apology and a compulsive SorrySorrySorry.  The words “I’m sorry” can go a long way in terms of repairing breaks in relationship.  When said sincerely, preferably with eye contact, “I apologize,” can bridge worlds of pain.  Even over the phone, “I’m sorry,” can provide deep repair, if said with enough of a pause to let the penny drop.  The ownership of “I’m sorry,” the accountability of “I apologize” over email or text can even offer balm.

There’s an interesting caveat here that I notice in my work coaching couples—that I also happen to notice as a member of a longterm couple, not to mention in my relationships with my young adult children. But before I go on listing all the places in my life where I notice this certain phenomenon, let me tell you what it is: it’s including with the apology the reasons for having done the action for which one is apologizing.  I tend to include my positive intention (that got misconstrued, or that I bungled) by way of emphasizing the fact I did not mean harm. So while I am apologizing for my actions or words that did damage, owning that I handled something unskillfully, I am also providing what was going on for me when I did that, and how I did not intend for it to come out the negative way it did.

But guess what? That explanation, offered so close on the heels of the actual apology, seems to work as a giant eraser, wiping away the words “I am sorry” as well as their healing impact.

What I am learning is: a true apology has to have space around it.  The penny has to drop, the import of the essential message has to land.

“I am sorry.”

“I apologize.”

There is a simple dignity to those words, a medicinal humility.  Explanation of the honorable intention can come later.

On Privilege

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At nineteen years old, I volunteered with CAPP, Child Assault Prevention Program. A troupe of us would enter elementary school classrooms and perform role plays. About kidnappers luring children into their cars with a purported litter of puppies or slew of free candy. About “Uncle Harry” (truly, the character’s name) inviting a niece or nephew to sit on his licentious lap.  During the role plays, we taught the kids techniques for self-defense. It only takes thirty pounds of full force, such as a child stamping onto an adult foot, for example, to break the many fine tarsal and metatarsal bones, causing the perpetrator to wince in pain, giving the child a chance to run for help.

Part of the training to participate in CAPP involved anti-bias work, examining racism and privilege. Our group of trainees was comprised of mostly women and a few men, ranging in age and ethnicity. I was one of the youngest, whitest, blondest. And in spite of my parents having sent my younger brother and me to YMCA day camps for a few summers where we were some of the only white kids—their intention being for us to understand what it felt like to be the minority—I still had a lot of blind spots about my white privilege. One particular CAPP training day exposed a biggie. During a facilitated discussion, I described feeling a sense of freedom to go hang out in spaces that appealed to me to go curl up and read books or write in my journal – sneaking into hotel lobbies, airport lounges, even country clubs. The facilitator asked me why I thought that was. And I answered (cringing now at the memory), “Because I’m friendly.”  It took her less than five minutes – let’s say three, max—to get through to me.  What I experienced as a sense of freedom was in fact entitlement. I had heard that word thrown around but never really ingested it as pertaining to me. The reason I was entitled, the facilitator explained with effective neutrality, was because I was white. And not just white, but a certain kind of white.  In those days, I was neither well dressed nor regularly showered (photos of me at nineteen reveal I often had bedhead), but even so, I looked privileged.

Because I was. And am.

Not over-the-top-mansion, own-our-own-plane, donate-libraries-to-universities privileged. But well-educated, medically-provided-for, consistently-and-nutritiously fed, having-had-all-kinds-of-lessons-as-a- kid privileged.  I grew up in a rural area on the outskirts of Princeton, NJ where we didn’t have to lock our doors. Our family, in fact, didn’t even own a housekey.

I have heard there is a website called White Whine, and I am sure if I checked it out, I might find many of my quotidian issues echoed there. I am not proud of this, any more than I stand behind my naïve belief that the reason I could get away with trespassing into random country clubs was because I was friendly.    

I do not want to take my good fortune for granted, or be careless with it. I am living a very lucky, very blessed life. Next time around, I could come back as a dung beetle.  In a former lifetime, maybe I was a servant to an abusive tyrant. Or maybe there are neither past lives nor future ones. Maybe there is only this. Either way, I am incredibly thankful for my this.

My this is also something that can send a message, one I often don’t intend. A message that can alienate. My goal – as both a writer and a human – is to connect, soul to soul, with my fellow earthlings. And I am humbly aware that the unintended impact of my good fortune can get in the way.  My deepest hope is that it won’t. And if it does, my commitment is to have the emotional stamina to listen to what gets reflected back to me. “Because I”m friendly.”

On Anxiety

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Image by Quint Buchholz

 

Definition of a writer: someone who goes out of her way to expose what normal healthy people go to great lengths to keep hidden. I didn’t make that up, I read it somewhere, and it stuck. I simultaneously yearn to put myself out there, while feeling swells of anxious vulnerability in doing so.

Anxiety seems to be my theme. I just finished a draft of a book that turned out to be an homage to anxiety, although my intention was to write something else altogether. My intention was to write about miracles, which I did, but the underlying theme revealed itself to be anxiety.

One of the primary miracles in the book was the experience of not feeling anxiety at the horrific scene of my twelve-year-old daughter’s accident.  Téa was hit while crossing a remote country road in Maine, by a car moving at thirty miles an hour. Thrown forty feet, she lay unconscious in her pooling blood for the thirty-plus minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive. And I was calm. Preternaturally calm. Like Jeff Bridges in that scene from Fearless while the plane is going down and he roams the aisles beaming a strange yet real serenity.  The major miracle in “I SURRENDER: shifting from anxiety to gratitude” (working title of my book) is the fact Téa survived, and recovered. The book follows the journey of her healing, and mine. Hers from her severe head injury, mine from a lifetime of anxiety—which culminated in the PTSD from her accident and my organic grateful elation over her recovery.

I grew up with unfortunate access to a treasure trove of anxiety-producing information. This was the late-Sixties, early-Seventies, long before Web MD, but I somehow got my hands on a detailed medical journal. I say somehow because my parents were not doctors, but the document arrived regularly in the mailbox at the foot of our driveway, and I would take it inside to research symptoms of diseases I did not want to befall our family.  Any additional information I felt I needed, I looked up in the Encyclopedia Britannica collection that my mother had won as a booby prize for being a contestant on the game show Password.

No one stopped me. Because no one knew I was even doing this. My parents were out—again, it was the ‘Seventies, era of benign neglect. They were on the cocktail/dinner party circuit, out every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Our babysitter rolled joints and played poker with her friends in our kitchen.  My little brother stared at the television upstairs in our parents’ bedroom, preferring Scooby-Doo, Courtship of Eddie’s Father, or sports, but if they weren’t on, he watched whatever was. (He is now a gastroenterologist, and I swear part of the draw to that career was getting to stare at the imaging screens: barium flowing through an intestinal tract, a scope trailing down an esophagus.) I would curl up in the cozy room we called the library, with our dogs, and the cats I was allergic to, terrifying myself by boning up on various forms of cancer.

“That looks like a leukemia lesion,” I once said with alarm, referring to the impetigo on my brother’s shin, eventually convincing my parents and then our pediatrician to run a blood test.

“Dad’s bloodshot eye could be from a retinal tumor,” I warned, even though he’d been hit square in the eye socket with a squash ball.

Eventually, I wound up in therapy.  Dr. Parmet taught me a word, “somatizing”, and got me to quit the habit of reading medical journals.  He convinced me I was acquiring knowledge I was using to my detriment, and I saw his point. I was nine.

As an adult, I find I can be remarkably soothing to anxiety sufferers, having been around the block with it countless times myself. In fact, you could say I’ve literally made a career out of anxiety. In my work as a life coach, and a Hoffman Process Teacher, I help others explore the roots of their anxiety, and find ways to self-soothe. Is everyone anxious?  People sometimes ask me this. I know of people who claim not to have anxiety, so I suppose the answer is No. But: really? Not to scare you, but we live in earth suits that expire. In other words, we die. Or, depending on your belief system, we might not but our bodies certainly do. Not knowing when or how this is going to happen to us or to our loved ones has got to have all of us just a little on edge. Doesn’t it? Mortality—our mortal condition—has to be the big underlying cause of free-floating human anxiety.  We all have our strategies to deal with this, including avoiding the topic altogether. If you’re in the latter category, I send you my admiration, some genuine envy, and I have to say right up front that I may not be the writer for you.

I watched a little girl the other day, a toddler of about age three, in the back seat of the car in her car seat, madly gripping a plastic steering wheel. Wrenching it to the right, to the left, pounding on the plastic little horn. She seemed very convinced she was actually driving.  It occurs to me (now a fifty-three year old woman), that her antics were a version of what I was doing with the medical journal. Trying to figure out every possible illness that could come down the pike before it happened, as if that were prevention. As if I were actually driving.