You Have a Limited Time to Say Sorry

If you’re like me, you make mistakes. A lot.

If you’re REALLY like me (scary), you probably didn’t do a lot of apologizing when you were little. It was partially my fault. I was very defiant and arrogant as a little kid because I had thought, “Because I get answers right a lot, I must not be wrong a lot. So I’m probably right, why should I apologize?”.

I vividly remember one moment as a kid where I didn’t apologize at all. Which is a pretty bad thing to vividly remember, because I’m pretty sure it’s had some adverse effects on my development… I used to take Saturday school lessons to learn Mandarin (I’m mostly Cantonese). For a 9 year old or so, it was definitely not something I looked forward to. Learning a language is hard, and I was not good at it. And I wasn’t enjoying the class - the teachers are strict and I wasn’t making many friends. I’m pretty sure I just copied answers off a friend and failed at the oral exams since you can’t copy that (yeah that’s pretty bad)… But there was recess. And every recess, everyone would race out and hopefully claim the two swings on the other side of the playground.

One day, I actually got to the swings first, and it was great. I was swinging higher and higher, until some kid my age ran in front of the swing, and I kicked him. Of course you know where this is going. I didn’t apologize. I’m sure I told him, “You shouldn’t run in front of swings”, and continued swinging while he walked away. Recess ended and we all got back into lines and went back inside for lessons. Why was this memorable? Well, later on that day, I got pulled out of class. The kid I kicked told his teacher, and they found me, and outside the room they made me apologize to him! Of course it was not sincerely, because really if we actually think about it there was absolutely no way any of that was my fault. I can’t stop physics. Looking back, I should have made sure he was okay and said sorry, but honestly I was not old enough to be this self-aware, and it’s not fair to be made to apologize like that.

I’m pretty sure that event was some sorts of traumatic in my life, and it’s affected me somewhat, given how well I still remember it. Not to say it’s the only problem. I’m pretty sure my parents have had some effect. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my parents apologize, much less apologize to me for something. My family’s not really an apologizing kind.

So sorry hasn’t really been a big part of my vocabulary. On the one hand, it makes me appear very passionate. When I believe I’m right, it’s hard to change my mind, and I can be very vocal. On the other hand, that only works when I believe I’m right and I’m actually right - which as I’ve gotten older, is not as common as it used to be.

Apologies are very powerful. We might view apologies as a sign of submission, but really they’re just an admission of an error. And admitting you erred is tremendously difficult, and a powerful tool. It means you respect the other person enough that they can change your opinion. It means you respect them enough to admit that they can change your opinion. And most of all, it means that you can change your opinions. It means that you can take information against what you know, and weigh it out properly, and conclude that you, were, wrong. And there’s a lot of power in that.

Learning how to apologize is important, but as is learning how to recognize when you should apologize. Because there are so many times, and I mean soooooo many times where I could have, should have apologized, but I didn’t recognize it until later. And by then it’s too late.

We all have the moments where we’re in an argument or discussion, and we know we’re wrong, but we try to twist and worm our way out of it – instead of arguing the point, now I’m talking about semantics or itty-bitty details about what the other person said or how it was said. And it’s really hard to stop at that point and just apologize for being wrong (no one likes being wrong).

When we realize we’re wrong, or when we’ve come to terms with being wrong, it takes even more time before we bring up the courage to admit it and apologize. But by then, it may be too late.

You can probably apologize for that shitty argument you had 5 minutes ago. You can probably apologize for some drunken fight yesterday. You can probably apologize for ignoring someone’s advice a week ago. You might get away with apologizing for screaming at someone a month later. But a couple months? That’s pushing it depending on how close you were. A year? The apology is going to be sincere, but the impact it has versus a year of hatred, a couple months of loathing and distrust? One apology is nothing there, and it’s too late.

I almost ruined a great friendship with two of my friends. Well, I kind of ruined it. We’re not that close anymore. It’s my fault and I regret it, but time is your enemy. We got into a fight. I thought they were crossing lines. They thought I overreacted. It was both, but no one owned up to either. And 2 months later when I did apologize, they accepted it, but it wasn’t the same, and it’s not been the same since.

Apologies lose value over time. Time doesn’t mend everything. We have to be so aware of how much we value our relationships, and how much stress we can put them through when we hit those rough patches. We have to make conscious efforts to be more aware of the things we say and the lines we cross and the people we hurt, because every time you screw up, a clock is running, and it can run out if you’re not careful. Don’t forget that on the other side of every monitor, the other side of the keyboard, the other side of those pairs of eyes is another person.

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Contact me at lai.victor.vl@gmail.com.