When my son was almost six, he fell off the play structure at school one morning, and broke his elbow. He went to the nurse’s office, bawling, and she made him bend and straighten his arm a few times. She then treated the scrape he’d also gotten, and sent him back to class. At some point during the morning, he told his teacher his arm was really hurting, but since he’d been cleared by the nurse, she told him to do the best he could. Three and a half hours after he’d broken his elbow, he went to gym class, where he was asked to run laps. He made it about halfway through the first lap when he collapsed, and when his coach saw his elbow, he told him it was definitely broken, and sent him back to the nurse.
It was at this point that I got a phone call. I was at the school in under five minutes, my daughter, a toddler at the time, hanging from my hip as I raced across the school grounds to get to the office. Once inside, I saw my son, laid out in the nurse’s office, the principal brightly chatting next to him. He was pale, his pupils were dilated, and when he saw me, fat tears moved down his face with no sound. I took one look at his elbow, which was four times bigger than it should have been, and knew it was broken. I put my daughter down and picked my son up, the principal still chatting away, phrases like, “sometimes these things don’t present as that bad at first”, and “he seemed fine”, as my mind raced about where to head. The pediatrician? The ER? Did I need to call my health insurance provider? All these thoughts were flooding through my brain as I carried him to my car, his knapsack over one shoulder, my daughter toddling along to keep up, the principal continuing with her very unhelpful sing-song chatter. I finally turned to her and said, “Listen, I’m not going to sue the school. If you want to help me, grab his knapsack, or carry my daughter, but please stop talking so I can think.”
It turned out that the right order was the pediatrician, and then the hospital for X-rays and a cast. It so happened that it was Halloween, but we didn’t do any trick-or-treating that year. At no time that evening or the following day, did anyone from the school call to check on my son. Not the nurse, not the principal. I knew at that point we were switching schools. Accidents happen. Mistakes are made. But when there’s no acknowledgement, no apology, and no understanding, there’s also no future.
I’m sure there was a concern about litigation. This happens with corporations and politicians a lot, and it can also happen at the scene of a car accident. “I’m sorry” can be construed as admission of guilt, wrong-doing and culpability, so people often turn to the “non-apology apology”, which is an actual thing: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-apology_apology
“I’m sorry you feel that way” is not the same as, “I’m sorry I blew it.” Mostly, that’s all people want when they’re feeling hurt, confused, or angry; they want to feel understood, seen, cared for and heard. They want to know that the other party realizes the legitimacy of their feelings, and wants to take responsibility for their part. That’s all most people need to forgive, to move closer, to move on. There was no part of me that wanted to sue anyone. Not for a millisecond. But without a heartfelt apology, or even a call, there was also no part of me that could stay. And that holds true for any relationship, whether we’re talking about the one you’re having with your children’s school, or the one you’re having with your partner, your mother, your child, or your best friend.
Fear is what stops us from saying we’re sorry. Maybe it’s fear of being sued in some cases, but when we’re talking about personal relationships, we’re talking about fear of being shunned or rejected or punished in some way. The fear that love will be withdrawn. The fear that we will no longer be seen as trustworthy or lovable. There are all kinds of reasons a person might be afraid to own his or her mistakes. If you grew up in a house where you were punished excessively, that would do it, for example. I don’t know when we became so afraid of each other. So afraid of being honest, of being real, of being vulnerable. Maybe it’s because we’re sold this false bill of goods that we’re all competing against one another, and only the strongest survive and thrive. Perhaps we see admission of culpability as a weakness, but really, it takes strength to own it when we screw up, which we will. No one is perfect. No one operates from her highest self in every moment. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving one another are necessary gifts we have to grant if we want to get along with each other in this world. And we could really use that right now. We need more connection, more caring, more love, and less fear. We need to be able to reach across the divide and say, “If you’re suffering, I’m suffering, too, and I’m sorry. Let’s try to make it right together.”
We get so caught up in being right, sometimes we lose sight of what it means to be human, which is so much more gratifying. Sending you love, as always, Ally Hamilton