Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

What’ve I got to do to make you love me? What’ve I got to do to make you care?
—Sorry Seems to Be The Hardest Word, Elton John, 1976

Unrequited love normally brings to mind memories of romantic, “puppy love” that failed to hear an echo. But teenage infatuations that end in agonizing, emotional dramas are surpassed in intensity by the crushing heartbreak experienced when, for some reason, a parent or child fails to respond to each other. This is a story of a girl and the relationship she yearned to have with her father.

Like many others in her generation, Karen grew up in a home ruled over by an authoritarian veteran of World War 2. Karen, now a senior citizen, grew up craving affection and praise from her father. But the times when she received attention seemed to have been reserved for those times when she needed (in her father’s estimation) correction.

Karen left home, went to college, married and made a new life. Even after her own children were adults and had themselves become parents, Karen continued to try to build a relationship with her father. She wasn’t seeking her pound of flesh for the wrongs of the past—Karen simply wanted to create an atmosphere for reconciliation. But Karen discovered that “sorry seems to be the hardest word.” When she talked with her father her attempts to discuss the oppressive relationship she had experienced and the punishment she regularly received were dismissed with “that’s how my father treated me.” At other times her father told her that the overbearing rules and harsh treatment to which he had subjected her had helped make her strong and prepared her for a successful life. He didn’t get it. He never did.

In his early 80’s the World War 2 veteran developed cancer, and Karen again tried to seek healing and reconciliation. The last time Karen talked with her father was only a few weeks before he died. She flew in to visit him, hoping he would be willing to talk about their shared past. She just wanted to hear one word—”sorry”—but she returned home crestfallen. When Karen, my wife, walked off the plane with an anguished look on her face I immediately knew her quest was unsuccessful.

The knowledge that she would never be loved in return acted upon her ideas as a tide acts upon cliffs.—The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder

“I’m Sorry”
It seems that the difficulty involved in articulating the words “I’m sorry” increases the closer the relationship one has (or had) with the person involved in the unresolved relationship. English poet and artist William Blake once noted that is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.

Saying the words “I’m sorry” goes against everything that human beings naturally hold near and dear. We never want to be or appear to be wrong because such an admission of weakness or acceptance of failure and fault makes us vulnerable, and we fight for all we are worth against being vulnerable. In most cases, the goal of human life is seen as trying to become secure and safe, inviolate and immune from the actions of others. Saying “I’m sorry” is an unnatural admission of guilt which leaves us exposed and vulnerable.

However, because the need to say “I’m sorry” is a fundamental ingredient in human relationships, early in life most of us learn that failure to say “I’m sorry” will inconvenience us. At the very least we learn to mouth the words, for practical and self-serving purposes. But in many cases such expressions of sorrow and regret are empty words of someone who is “going along to get along.”

As a child we quickly learn that saying something like “I’m sorry, but I forgot to make my bed” or “I’m sorry I didn’t take out the trash” goes a long way toward avoiding painful clashes with our parents. When we grow up, fall in love and then marry, even when we genuinely feel our spouse was more at fault than we were, we learn the practical considerations of saying “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry,” whether the words are meant or not, begins to salve wounds and prevent an un-holy war.

Seeking a simple pardon because it takes the chill out of the air is a far different matter than the painful process involved in an admission of blame, an undertaking that lays bare our deep-seated flaws and defects. For that reason saying “I’m sorry” is a road not often taken. Grievances become deep-seated as time passes.

In the 1970 novel and movie Love Story, my generation was assured that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The sentiment is so wrong in so many ways, but it has provided a tailor-made justification for people who have been convinced that their self esteem is a God-given right that no one can ever question. For this narcissistic generation, apologizing is harder than ever, because love has been subjectively redefined as the ability to do as one pleases, when and how one desires.

Virtually everyone has been hurt by someone who has not admitted the pain they have created. We all have memories of hurts others have caused us and we yearn to reconcile them. Stop reading for about ten seconds and you’ll be able to name several individuals whom you would like to forgive, but you haven’t because they haven’t demonstrated any signs of remorse toward you. In many cases the person who caused pain is oblivious of the havoc their actions caused. In other instances, given the many forces lined up against an acknowledgement of wrong, those who have some sense of their culpability are unwilling to pay the price of an apology.

What Are We Waiting For?
If we continue to nurse grudges and grievances toward those who have yet to ask us to forgive them, our failure to forgive will gradually erode our relationship with others and most importantly with our loving heavenly Father. If we spend our lives waiting to hear “I’m sorry” from those who have harmed us we will effectively allow them to continue to hold us hostage, emotionally and spiritually. How can we forgive those who desperately need to be forgiven, but will never ask?

Stop waiting. Don’t hold out hope of hearing “I’m sorry,” because in many cases you will never hear those words. It is only in and through the grace of God, embodied and enabled within us through the risen life of Jesus, that we can forgive others even though they have not said “I’m sorry.” By God’s grace, he gives us forgiveness and reconciliation and the gift of passing it on to others, through the ultimate act of service and vulnerability, exemplified and demonstrated to and for us by Jesus on his cross. God’s grace will also give us the humility to make ourselves small and vulnerable by seeking forgiveness from others and saying those words which they long to hear: “I’m sorry.”

Was it ruthless and unforgiving of me to speak earlier of the unfinished business my wife has with my now deceased father-in-law? I loved him, but I share this story of the pain he produced in my wife’s life because I know many will identify with it. Sadly, many people have grave difficulties distinguishing between their earthly father, who is (or was) distant, authoritarian, angry and even abusive, and their loving heavenly Father.

• For the love of God, if you think your children or anyone near and dear to you has something they really need to discuss with you, make it easy on them to do so. Invite them to talk.

• When they lay out the details of what troubles them, even if what they say makes you uncomfortable, and even if you dispute the accuracy of every detail, don’t interrupt with justifications. Just listen. Be attentive and hear them out. And don’t just hear them out, but as hard as it may be, ask God to empower you to listen and respond graciously.

• It is hard to be warm and engaging when someone reveals our shortcomings, but during such a discussion imagine how difficult it is for the person who has summoned up the courage to talk with you about old wounds and heartaches. You don’t have to accept the veracity of everything someone says in order to make peace. God will empower you to reconcile with a friend or loved one even if you don’t agree on all the details of the past.

Dear Lord: Empower and enable us, in Christ, to make ourselves nothing as Jesus did (Philippians 2:7). Use us as healing instruments in your hands, so that healing and reconciliation might begin when we say “I’m sorry” to those who need to hear us utter those words. By your grace, empower and enable us as Christ-followers, to forgive others before we are asked. In so doing, your kingdom will continue to be seen and known on this earth, both now and forevermore. Amen.
—Greg Albrecht