How do we say we’re sorry?



I have been thinking about apologies.  

It started when I came across a Congressional apology that was made to Native Americans back in 2009. I have always felt strongly about how our nation’s indigenous people have been treated; both thousands of years ago and all the way up to modern days. It always breaks my heart to read about the violence, removals and betrayals the Indian people were subjected to, and the devastating long-run effects in terms of poverty, education, alcoholism, and mental and physical health.

The Congressional apology is tucked away in the obscure and little-read Defense Appropriations Act of 2009. On one hand, it seems like it would tackle our troubled history. It is named: “A joint resolution to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.”

It seems to be on the right track: listing years of grievances and mistreatment of our Native American Peoples. The document states that Native People inhabited the present-day United States for thousands of years before the arrival of people of European descent. That Native people honored, protected, and stewarded this land we cherish today. And that the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of the native Peoples. (“Opened a new chapter.” Are you kidding me? That’s not an apology. Right?)

To many observers, the apology fell woefully short. The original language of the resolution was watered down, no apology is made directly from the government (instead it’s “on behalf of the American people”), and there is no authorization or support for restitution. There is no support for correcting any of the injustices that were committed.

And, perhaps most troubling of all, the apology was not publicized or officially announced. There was no White House ceremony. No official gathering. No presentation of a document to the devastated parties. As one editorial asked: “Is an apology that’s not said out loud really an apology?”

This powerful and moving video created in response to the Congressional apology is hard to see. It graphically shows the still deplorable conditions for our Native American Peoples. Don’t the descendants of the American Indian deserve better?



So, if this Congressional apology falls so short, it begs the question: how are we supposed to apologize? What does a true apology look like?

As I look back at my past I can remember plenty of times I acted no better than that Congressional report. Times when I said I was sorry, but I really wasn’t. Times I said I was sorry only because I got caught. Times I said I was sorry just so the conversation would end and we could move on.

After hearing about the Congressional apology it caused me to want to research what a proper apology might look and sound like. To sum it up here’s what I discovered:

A proper apology includes

  1. a sincere statement of regret for what has taken place,
  2. an acceptance for my own actions, and
  3. an offer of a remedy.

If any one of these is missing then the apology is weak or diluted. The regret needs to include some sort of empathy that you and I actually feel something for the other person whom we have hurt. Taking responsibility means not making excuses for our behavior and that we accept whatever the consequences of our behavior might be. The remedy must require some action on our part for what we have done, eg: making restitution if damages have occurred, going to therapy if need be, or sitting down to have a difficult conversation.

Saying that we are sorry to another person is one of the most difficult things we humans can do. It’s an acknowledgement of our own failure in a relationship with another person.

Yet, saying we are sorry is one of the most critical skills to develop in order to have a good relationship with others and, even more important, to be in right relationship with God.

The next time we personally have the opportunity to say “I am sorry” let’s be big about this and do it right.

Peace friends, 


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1 Comment

  • Shari says:

    Thank you for bringing heart into the discussion. I’ve heard some say that an apology reveals weakness, but in light of creating (and maintaining) relationship, doesn’t it actually reveal love?

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