Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Truth to Power, or that sort of thing.

Soapbox time.

So. We're only human, right? And one of the things we hate (as humans) is hearing about when we've fucked up. We get cranky. We get defensive. We get anxious. We feel attacked, and all those panicky feelings shoot us full of adrenaline and we have to react right the fuck now to make them go away.

Heck, I even feel accused looking at the image I uploaded. Um, sorry about that.

But here's the thing -- sometimes we fuck up. And when we mess up in a way that affects someone else, and that's a fairly common thing, it is often the right and proper thing for them to call us on it. Particularly, as it happens, if it's part of a pattern of error, or mistaken beliefs, or bad choices, or just mishandling we don't realize we're doing. It's entirely possible to be wrong and not even realize it, and our friends are doing the right thing if they call us on that, no matter how icky we might feel inside. The right thing to do, in that case, is not to defend our territory, right or wrong. The right thing to do is take a moment, think about what they're saying, acknowledge the truth of it if there is any, and apologize -- period, end of story.*

We are not good at doing this, and by we I mean apparently as a species. We invest a lot in the appearance of being right, of being perfect, and it can feel like a loss if we say "You're right, that's a problem I have and I was wrong. I'm sorry." We feel inferior and uncertain, and we worry about the consequences of admitting a thing is not well done. We teach our children to apologize through catching them doing something wrong, and it is often accompanied by punishment and shaming. It's hard to feel good about apologies when that's the way you experience them.

Apologies are golden, though. They allow the injured to feel heard and know their annoyance or suffering (hopefully minor) can be productive. They let people forget something and move on. In business or personal life, they are the pallative to social ills, and they don't have to mean a loss or putdown to the giver of the apology unless you make it so.

The real problem with not apologizing, though, has nothing to do with the outside world and everything to do with the person who can't or won't give one. The more you declare you have nothing to apologize for, the more weight that belief has to have -- after all, if it crumbles, you might have even more apologizing to do, and even the little bit you were presented with wasn't palatable. So the more you double down, the more invested with meaning and import that non-given apology becomes, and the more effrontery it seems that someone continues to confront you with it (or else just slips away from your life without you realizing it). Suddenly instead of you being wrong, you have to make someone else be wrong in order to make things okay, and that's a problem. The real test of "wrong" is, "is someone injured (possibly repeatedly) by my actions? Do my actions impact my own life negatively as a result?" If the answer is yes, you must confess.

I mess up a lot. Part of it is a cognitive/neurological issue, part of it is being human. I don't mean to, and a lot of the times I'm largely unaware of it until it's pointed out to me. My awareness of the ways in which I mess up has grown over the years, which is both painful and a blessing, because it lets me accommodate my natural differences in a way that doesn't affect the people I care about negatively, at least not for the most part. Apologizing is a big part of that -- acknowledging that I messed up and did something that made someone else uncomfortable and unhappy, whether I meant to or not, lets them know that they are valued and that I care about how I affect them. It doesn't mean I have to put up with being treated badly in return; it means I know my own worth and when I'm negatively affecting someone else.

I've been seeing this a lot lately; it seems like this simple rubric is one we have a great deal of trouble understanding or putting into practice, from Ferguson to my own daily internet experience. It's not okay to hurt others or make them feel lesser. It's not okay to refuse to acknowledge our own actions or complicity in that. If this is something we've done, the right answer is to Say We Are Sorry, Acknowledge What We Did, and Not Do It Again.

What's so hard about this, people?

[steps down, puts soapbox away until next time]


*Note that you do actually have to mean it and make an effort to change along with the apology, but that's about making your insides match your outsides and is really closer to another blog post altogether.