(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message. See below to read it.
Please access and watch this video of a past TV commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcGKxLJ4ZGI&t=7s
This commercial aired in 2014 but it is representative of a trend encouraging women to stop saying, “I’m sorry” so often. Commentators note that women frequently preface requests with those words, or they apologize for things they didn’t do. The result, sociologists say, are overly apologetic women who reinforce mostly male assumptions that women are weak as well as biologically and psychologically pre-disposed to be followers and not leaders. Instead, as the Pantene ad we just watched says, women must be strong in order to counter that assumption.
I like to consider myself a feminist even as I admit to having male blind spots and implicit biases. Even so, as a father to two daughters and as a gay man, I’m pleased our culture is now significantly empowering women to demand their equal rights as the majority gender. The women’s rights movement and the #MeToo campaign to end sexual harassment are important efforts to strip men of their disproportionate power and influence. After being second class citizens for centuries, it’s time women become the primary influencers in the world – all so that cooperative and non-aggressive attitudes and styles of leadership can flourish.
In that regard, I don’t like what seems to be an effort to encourage women to be more like men – assertive, unapologetic, and domineering. Our culture does not need more people acting boorish – as some men can act. It needs more people to act with humility and decency. It needs more people to collaborate and peacefully reconcile differences. Those are precisely the skills many women, and some men, bring to the table.
Power, in my mind, should not be defined by how men have exercised it in the past – leadership that too often has promoted brute strength, boastfulness, violent speech or action, and unapologetic arrogance. As the #MeToo movement has shown, many men have too long assumed they have the right to exploit, harass, and even assault women.
We need, instead, what is often called soft power – leadership that encourages cooperation, mutual respect, and non-violence in speech and action. Those are both practical and spiritual ideals. Authentic power comes from influencing people in a way that fosters agreement – so that things can actually be accomplished. Soft power is an ethic that comes directly from Christian and Buddhist teachings that grace, empathy and reconciliation are not weak or feminine attributes. They are, instead, powerful attributes that are proven to solve problems in ways that last because multiple people, not just a few, have participated.
To use examples we watched in the commercial, is it a bad thing for anyone to apologize when suddenly he or she and unexpectedly enters someone else’s space? A quick and polite “I’m sorry to bother you” begins such an encounter on a peaceful and even empathetic tone. It’s a note of politeness for anyone, in my opinion, to say, “Sorry” when interrupting a meeting presentation with a question. Even worse about the commercial we just saw is the encouragement for a women to act just like a rude man would – by hogging an entire blanket and justifying it by saying: “Sorry. Not sorry.”
I also appreciate how many people, male and female, say, “I’m sorry” in a way that implies empathy for something bad that happened to another. One woman reports being criticized by her friends for saying, “I’m sorry” to her boyfriend when he burned a meal he had cooked for her. Another woman was reprimanded by a woman next to her because she said, “I’m sorry” after the woman had dropped her coat in a muddy puddle. “It’s my fault, not yours, so don’t say I’m sorry,” that woman scolded.
These women, however had simply expressed what many women feel and say when they see others suffer a hardship. The reality is that many expressions of sorrow come from women who are not apologizing for something that they clearly know they didn’t cause. They are instead expressing sympathy for someone else – the boyfriend who burned a meal he’d worked hard to prepare, or for a woman who accidentally drops her coat in a puddle.
In a recent study of 1,000 college age women and 1,000 college age men, results indicate women in fact do say, “I’m sorry” a lot more than men. The study also revealed that women believe they’ve offended someone else far more than do men – many of whom admit they frequently don’t believe something they said or did needs an apology.
The study also showed how women are more intuitive then men by better sensing when another person hurts. As an example, one psychologist noted that when a guy wins a race, he’s unlikely to think about how his competitors feel. When a woman wins a race, she is very likely to downplay her success because she’s concerned about the loser’s feelings.
The implication of these results are significant. Because many men are conditioned and trained to see the world more from their perspective than someone else’s, the study indicates they don’t as frequently admit when they’ve made a mistake. And so they don’t apologize because they’ve essentially been taught what they do is usually right – and if someone else feels hurt, that’s their issue. The study also shows shows men are less aware when people around them suffer.
This is an example of how socially positive attitudes possessed by many women, and some men, need to become more a part of our culture. We all need to apologize more, we all need to be more intuitive to when we’ve offended someone, or when another is hurting. In other words, I don’t believe women should stop saying, “I’m sorry”. Instead, men should say, “I’m sorry” a lot more!
Unfortunately for me, that is the exact opposite of what our society is currently encouraging women to do. The effort to get women to stop apologizing so much is, I believe, a result of patriarchy. Cultures around the world have long promoted machismo – aggression, competition, assertiveness, and violence – physical and verbal. Cultures have also demeaned supposedly feminine attributes like non-violence, cooperation and empathy. Telling women to stop apologizing is one more effort to advance typically masculine attitudes and thus perpetuate male power. This puts women in lose-lose situation. If they speak and act more aggressively like men, I believe they promote a patriarchal culture that’s been defined by men. Even worse, such women are labeled as pushy. If they speak and act as women have historically been more prone to do – with greater empathy and a strong willingness to cooperate, they are labeled as weak. No matter what many women do, they lose.
What it comes down to is for our society NOT to expect women to change, but instead put that expectation on men. THEY need to learn how to reduce their aggressive inclinations and instead be more willing to compete less, cooperate more, and seek to understand the motivations, feelings and hurts of others. And if they refuse to change, then women, using their more peaceful inclinations, must become the world’s leaders.
What ultimately should happen is a change in how humanity defines and exercises power. Nobody is truly strong when they refuse to apologize for an offense they’ve committed, no matter how minor. And nobody is truly strong when they fight, humiliate or dominate another. As the Buddha once said, “Self-control is strength. Calmness is power.”
And, as Jesus implied in his teachings, there is ironic strength in being peaceful and even weak. Too many people have fostered the myth that Jesus’ power was due to him being an all-powerful God who will one day lead a climactic, world ending battle against non-believers. To the contrary, Jesus was a humble and poor man who taught non-violence, compassion, and stoicism even when humiliated or attacked. Those are what made him admired and strong two-thousand years ago and still do today.
I’m confident Jesus said, “I’m sorry” a lot. He certainly would have learned to do so from his many female friends with whom he was unafraid to hang out and ask for advice. He also would have done so because he taught the merits of both giving and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot come, he taught, unless a wrongdoer admits his or her misdeed, the harm it caused, and then pledges to try and not repeat it. In other words, one must offer a heartfelt apology in order to be forgiven.
What if one apologizes but the other does not forgive? As Jesus said, that should not matter. Confession, sorrow and repentance – to use Christian terms – are always the right thing to do.
We should also apologize if we are only partially at fault. And in that regard, I believe everyone must apologize a whole lot more because few of us, in any conflict or disagreement, are 100% in the right. If you show me a relationship that is broken, I will in turn show you two people who are both at fault. It almost always takes two people to cause a broken relationship. Nobody is a pure angel or a total devil.
And so we must apologize for the devil in us – the part that added to a disagreement. Apologies properly done, with an admission of wrongdoing, awareness of hurt caused, and a promise to do better, these are like a salve that soothe and diminish angry feelings. Anyone who refuses to forgive, whose heart is not touched by the vulnerability and sincerity of an honest apology, is not open to the healing offered. Indeed, it’s a well-known fact that resentment and anger towards another person are not feelings that cause harm to the offender. Instead, refusing to forgive is a poison that destroys one’s own soul. Forgiveness, as many say, is divine. It takes humility to ask for it, and grace to give it.
I’ve shared on several occasions the difficult relationship I had with my father. He was a good man but I don’t think I was the son he would have preferred. He showed that feeling toward me in many ways when I was younger and it was often done with ridicule. Why couldn’t I throw a football like other guys? Why did I shrink from conflict? Why was I so introverted? Why did I dress in clothing he called too stylish – which he really meant were too effeminate? He said many times it was because I was not a real man.
He said that, and worse, one too many times even when I was a young adult, married with children, and making my way in the world. And so one day I told him that until he apologized for his demeaning words, I would no longer see him or allow my girls to do so either. I admit to using my daughters as bargain chips in my argument with him – and for that I was wrong.
But I held firm to my vow and for almost six months, when I was 34, I had absolutely no contact with my dad. My young girls saw him a few times, but not nearly as much as before.
One day, after I’d returned home from work, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and there stood my dad. I didn’t know what to say but he came in the front hallway and stopped. He struggled with words and I can’t remember exactly what they were. I do know he didn’t offer excuses for his past behavior. He talked instead about how wrong he’d been and then he uttered the two words that heal so many emotional wounds – “I’m sorry.”
And that was all it took to tear down the wall between us. I then apologized for the way I’d behaved toward him – especially by denying him the right to see his granddaughters. We talked a bit more, he turned to leave, and just before he walked out the door, he told me he loved me…
As much as I can remember, that was the only time in my life I heard him say those words to me – but I knew they were both difficult for him to say and also very genuine.
From that point onward, our relationship was much better such that when I came out about ten years later he was upset at first, but he eventually accepted me and even welcomed and embraced Keith, my partner.
The power of one apology, the humility it took to offer it, and the grace it required to accept it….. they healed our ruptured relationship and restored the love between us.
I don’t want anyone to ever think she or he should say, “I’m sorry” less. Instead, I want everyone to say those words a lot more – particularly men. They are the polite words that make for friendly and even loving interaction. They are the expressions of empathy for those who hurt. They are the reconciling words that bring peace and hope to a broken world. I firmly believe each of us need to say them more…….and I’m sorry if you disagree.
I wish you much peace and joy.