Making Amends is Better than Making Apologies

rr-imageNo one is interested in your apologies, unless you back them up with a change in behavior. Making amends repairs the damage; making apologies is only a promise to repair the damage. One is action; the other, words. One will cost you something; it might even bring about a transformation. The other is as cheap as spent air, blown out in such a way as to make noise with your lips. The word amends comes from the Middle French for reparation. The word apology comes from the Greek for justification. Let me ask you; when you’re hurt, what do you want more, reparation or justification?

I thought so. Save your apologies; work towards making amends.

Amends come in two categories. There’s direct restitution and there’s indirect. Amends, or restitution, compensates the victim for the harm done. If you’ve inflicted physical injury, then pay the medical bills. If you lied, then tell the truth. If you’ve robbed them of their time, give of your time. If you broke faith, keep faith. If you’ve said horrible words, even if they were true, say uplifting ones that are also true. If you’ve neglected, pay attention. If you lost your temper, acquire self discipline. If you frightened, protect. If you failed to keep your promises, don’t make promises you can’t keep; or, if you do make promises, keep them.

This is why I asked you to write a statement of responsibility and an account of how your actions harmed another. Look at every item and decide how you’re going to make restitution. Let’s take the father who punched his child in the face. He wrote in his statement of responsibility:

“When you were ten years old and I was a full grown man, I lost my temper and made a fist and hit you three times in the face with all the force I could. I then sent you to your room. Later, I told your mother you fell and hit the coffee table. I went on for years and pretended it didn’t happen until you brought it up. You didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. I was afraid I was losing my authority and you had no respect for me. I decided that, if you weren’t going to respect me, I could, at least make you fear me. I should have known better. I was beaten as a child, too. I should’ve remembered what that was like and not bought into the lies that it was a good thing. I failed to love you like I should and want to learn to love you better.”

How can this man make restitution? When he lost his temper, he failed to model self discipline to his daughter. To make restitution, he should show her self-discipline. Since he hit her and caused bruises, to make restitution he might apply ice to those bruises. Because he sent her to her room and isolated her, restitution would involve being available. When he lied to her mother he caused the child and her mother to not know what to believe. From now on, he needs to tell the truth to both of them. Where once he made her fear him, now he can protect her. When he forgot what it was like to be beaten, he should be upfront and honest about how he was a small child once, totally at the mercy of someone who used him as a punching bag.

All this, as hard as it might be, can easily be done if the harm has just recently occurred and his daughter is still small and the bruises have not faded. If years have gone by, as they have in this case, it’s going to be impossible to make much direct restitution. He can still model self-discipline, be available if she wants him around, tell the truth, protect her if there’s an opportunity, and be open about his experiences; but ice is not necessary, the damage to his child’s development is already done, and it’s too late to fix things now.

There are many situations in which direct amends are impossible. It could be too late. They could be unwanted. Some people you’ve hurt would rather not have anything to do with you. They may not feel safe around you. You might have an order of protection. The adult daughter in our example may very well have a distant relationship with the father who used to beat her and want to keep it that way. She’s not going to have him babysit his grandchildren if he’s shown that he cannot control his temper. If that’s the case, then the only direct amends he can make would be to accept the consequence gracefully and not whine and complain that he doesn’t have a grandchild to bounce on his knee.

You’ll want to be careful that, in your eagerness to be rid of your guilt or achieve reconciliation, you don’t cause more harm by attempting to make unwanted direct amends. Some victims don’t want to be reminded of what happened. The nightmares have finally stopped. They’ve only just moved on with their lives. Just the thought of you is enough to give them the shudders. In that event, it’s a profoundly selfish thing to show up at their door, unannounced, with flowers. Keep your flowers, then, along with your apologies; rather, give the flowers to someone else who could use them. That would be an example of indirect amends.

There are other cases in which the victim doesn’t know they’ve been victimized. For instance, I often see spouses who’ve been cheating on their partners. They believe their partner doesn’t know it. They fear that being honest about the affair will cause their spouse unnecessary anguish. It’s better, they say, to quietly end the affair and devote themselves to being a better partner than unburden themselves at the expense of the other.

It’s hard to know what to do in these cases. It’s true they can do a lot to be better husbands without confessing they’d strayed; but they can’t make amends for lying by continuing to hide the truth. Furthermore, I often suspect that the spouse knows more than anyone says. People have a sense that tells them there’s something wrong. Often they can’t put their finger on what, but they know something’s not right. On the other hand, sometimes people just don’t want to know. This is such a thorny problem, we may need another post to discuss it.

If you honestly find you cannot make all the direct amends you’re called to make, then full reconciliation will be impossible and you’re left with indirect amends. Maybe, some day, the opportunity will arise for that man to embrace his alienated daughter, do the right things by her, and bounce his grandchild on his knee. It’ll be a beautiful moment if he’s ready for it. He can prepare by enacting a program of indirect amends.