3.23.2008

Shouting from my soapbox: I'm sorry, okay?

Did you ever have somebody bring up something mean or stupid that you did years earlier? How did that make you feel? Certainly you didn’t intend to do harm…well, okay, maybe you did once. But let’s all just admit that we’ve made some mistakes, yeah? That seems like a good place to start.

In the last six months I’ve been reminded by 4 people of things I did years ago that were hurtful to them.

In one case, the event was 42 years ago. I will admit that what happened was pretty bad and that the injured party really suffered. I do understand. I truly fucked up.

Number two was a chatty letter I got from a relative. He recounted, between innocuous personal stories, some genuinely awful things I did or said to him during a visit he made to our house. That visit would have been, umm, let’s see, about 10 years ago. And, again, he was right – I had been very thoughtless and cruel.

The third reminder was in an email from one of my new “old” friends. I guess I was rude to her too. Apparently, in my youth, I had cussed her out. In this case I can’t say that I actually remember what happened. I recall being mostly a wuss at that age and not the sort of person who would go off on someone. I didn’t have that kind of bravado, in my recollection of myself at 17.

And last, but not least, a recent email reminding me of an insensitivity 5 years ago. That was someone I snubbed because they made some remark about $cientology. And you probably thought I was exaggerating about dumping people who didn’t like my “church?” Nope, did it all the time. But in this particular case, I probably would have snubbed that person anyway. He was hard for me to get along with, I didn’t have anything in common with him and he’d moved far away. It’s this damn blog. I’m so easily found. I should have left well enough alone. I could have ignored his email, but nooo, I’m trained to be polite.

Which brings us to one of the points of all this: How to handle other people’s upsets when they’re old news. I have no problem with apologizing and I certainly have been doing a lot of that lately. That’s completely fine with me. And I’m not glib about it, I feel their pain, I hear that I’ve done damage. I sincerely wish I could take it back, have an undo or a do-over, or something so that that thing never happened to them. But I can’t.

Here would be another point of this rant: What is their reason for telling me about it now? Have they been waiting all this time for that apology? Is there more I should do to make up for my screw-ups? Now, see, I feel pretty strongly that holding onto old hurts is counter-productive – I can’t think of a way that it would help a person, can you? To me it comes under the heading of “get over it.” I was trying to think of things that family or friends had done to me that had upset me, hurt me, pissed me off, etc. I was able to remember a few things, but nothing so huge that I thought I should bring it up in the now. Nothing. Maybe this is one of the important variables here: how big was the hurtful thing? Wouldn't that have something to do with whether or not you held onto it? And for how long?

I have to say here that I know this is a complicated issue. I think “getting over it” and “moving on” are very important. I believe that holding onto old hurts just makes a person sour, unhappy, a sad sack and someone who cannot trust others. That said, here’s a story about my own experience on the other side: I was an abused child, from age 5 to age 12. The abuse was at the hands of my father, who died when I was 12. I tried once, when I was in my early 20s, to talk to my mother about what had happened. I really had to work up my courage to have that conversation, trust me. So I carefully brought up the past, carefully said something about feeling damaged by what had happened, carefully, walking on eggshells here, tried to engage my mother in the conversation. She had two responses, neither of them an apology. The first was, “It happens to all little girls,” and the second was, “Can’t you just move on?!”

An apology at that moment would have helped me move on, would have helped me heal. An apology would have said to me that she knew she was partly accountable and that she didn't take it lightly. It certainly would have been a step in the right direction. I can see how that apology, even decades after the fact, is crucial.

Unless, of course, it's something little. Then, if someone's hanging on, waiting for you to grovel and whip yourself, it's a whole different story. Then it's their problem, I think.

All of this raises many questions for me: What about the moment the hurt occurs? Isn't that the best time of all to say, "Hey, asshole, get off my foot!"? But maybe you, like me, aren't the brave sort of person you would like to be. I may be able to rant, especially here, where I have lots of time to write and rewrite. That's not the same as having the guts to tell someone that I feel hurt. And how about this: Do you always know that you've been hurt, right at the moment it happens? I have a delay thing -- it may take a while for me to catch up, so to speak. I may not know for a week that I should have stood up for myself. And if I had known right at the moment, would I have been up to the task?

It is a complex thing, human nature. There's all the stuff we're taught about "please" and "thank you" and being polite. There's all the stuff about being female and not feeling entitled to throw a punch occasionally. There's all the stuff about being male and not allowing your feelings to show, or, for that matter, to be known to yourself.

I believe we must have conversations with ourselves about these things. And somehow, we have to find our own balance, what are the lines that we will not cross and that we will not allow others to cross with us. And once we've figured that out, how do we communicate those things to others? If someone is standing on your toe, is smacking them upside the head the first thing you would do? I know people who are so angry most of the time, that that is what they would do. But if you've "moved on" from the hurts in your life, wouldn't you be more inclined to say, "Excuse me, would you please get off my toe?"