Whenever I’m bored—on a long bus ride where I’ve forgotten to bring a book, or when I’m procrastinating on a particularly unexciting writing project—I often end up playing this game with no winner. It has only one rule, and it is to come up with as many reasons I can think of as to why I suck. (Fun game, huh?) A montage unfolds in my head of all the mean and petty things I have ever done, as I become the world’s crappiest hero in an edited version of my life.
Let’s quickly *woosh* back in time a dozen years or so, when I was but a mere sixth grader desperately looking for approval from whomever was in the immediate ranks above me on the social ladder. I told two of my best friends—let’s call them Lila and Elena, characters in a book I’m reading—that I had a special announcement to make, and then watched as the anticipation in their eyes turned to confusion when I said, “I need us to stop being friends.” I acted like a jerk. Scratch that, I was a jerk. Their sins were that they didn’t care about clothes and boys the way the popular girls did, and I wanted to distance myself from them to prove my coolness. I thought (secretly hoped?) that they would agree that we were drifting in different directions, that we would now sit in our respective new social circles come lunchtime with no hard feelings toward one another. Instead, I made them cry.
That night, Lila called my house and left a voicemail in a sad, quiet voice, saying she was confused and wanted to talk more. My mom heard the message, asked me what had happened, and admonished me for my cruelty. “I did not raise you to treat people that way,” she yelled, and I started to cry as well. Feeling guilty for what I had done, I called Lila back and apologized.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” I said. I just wanted to fit in with the popular girls, I told her, conveniently shifting the blame. Even my apology was motivated by selfishness: I truly did feel ashamed of what I did, but in that moment, I needed Lila to alleviate my guilt by forgiving me. I needed her to make me feel OK about myself. I needed to be able to hang up the phone and tell my mom that I had made it all better. My feelings continued to be the top priority, trampling over everything else. I can’t even remember what Lila said after she told me it was fine. Lesson totally learned, right?
Lila and Elena (who I called next) both forgave me, and I went back to sitting with them at lunch the next day, but the rest of the year was off. There was distance between us: They shared less with me, our mutual friends (who knew what I had done) didn’t trust me as much, and I was invited to fewer get-togethers. Our friendship was fizzling out—which, ironically, was what I’d once wanted, but made me feel lonely when it happened—and it was my fault. At first I was frustrated that they were leaving me out of things, but any time I started to get angry at them, I remembered my past cruelty and thought, Would I want to be my friend after that happened? I wanted everything to go back to normal after I apologized, to delete that incident from my mind and move on, but I couldn’t. My actions had consequences, and I had to live with them. The next year we ended up going to different middle schools. We kept in touch sporadically over chat, but never went back to being the close friends we once were.
When I apologized to Lila and Elena, I wanted to be a good person, but more than that, I wanted other people to think I was a good person. I still want that. I care so much about being liked, probably more than I care about being respected. Being liked is a nice feeling! Apologizing when you’ve hurt somebody, especially your friends, is important! Yet the more I have screwed up and apologized over the years (it has happened, ahem, a few times), I have learned to ask myself whom the apology is serving the most.
A couple years ago, I was back in my hometown for Thanksgiving, and I went with my mom to the grocery story. I recognized the cashier: She was a girl I went to high school with. In the eleventh grade, a rumor went around that at a party, she got so drunk she slept with an older guy without knowing his name. I stayed quiet while some of my classmates called her a slut—even though I knew in my gut there was something off about a situation in which a girl was vilified for having sex and nobody was giving the guy hell.
In the store, we exchanged small awkward smiles of recognition, but I couldn’t maintain eye contact for more than a second before looking at my shoes. By the time she had graduated high school (she was a year ahead of me), the accepted theory was that she was still “that slut,” and I hadn’t kept track of what had been going on in her life in the years since. (I myself had spent those years sitting in a university classroom taking Women’s Studies and reading blog posts about slut shaming and rape culture, and proudly declaring that I was against all those evil, evil things.) I wanted to say something, tell her how bad I felt about what had happened to her in high school, even if that meant putting her on the spot at her job in front of my mother, just so that I could convince myself I was no longer the person I was in the eleventh grade. I ended up saying nothing.
My old classmate probably had no idea whether I’d spoken up for her back in eleventh grade, and maybe didn’t even care: Who actually stood to benefit the most from me apologizing? An uncomfortable but important question that I’ve since had to learn to ask myself every time I want to say “I’m sorry” is: Am I doing this because I want to atone for the hurt I’ve caused someone, or am I doing this because I want to make a public showing about How Bad I Feel? In determining whether it’s the latter, I think about whether I’m apologizing only because I want things to go back to the way they were before (like I wanted with Lila and Elena)—or with a willingness to accept that, because of my actions, people might not forgive me (like what actually happened with Lila and Elena), as is their right?
I like to imagine that every personal screwup of mine is some roadblock to overcome on my personal journal to Total Enlightenment™—a phrase that I definitely just coined for the first time ever right now. And yes, maybe I would like to get to a place in which my Totally Enlightened™ self is adored by all and all my mistakes can be universally recognized as merely character building blocks and all is forgiven and nobody points out when I mix my metaphors. But regardless of how much I may have changed or grown or how many Women’s Studies courses I have taken, sometimes the best thing I can do is recognize that even when I’m REALLY, truly sorry, nobody owes me their forgiveness. ♦