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Friday, August 16, 2013

Love means never having to hear "I'm sorry"

Remember when Erich Segal’s book Love Story first came out, it had to be in the late 1960s or early
70s, and how crazy we all thought that tag line was from the book and the movie: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It still sounds crazy, and you wonder how someone who had lived for very long, who cared about another person, who had stumbled his or her way through more than 24 hours of a relationship, could ever have thought that that phrase was true. And still, true or not, that movie and book were incredible hits, ubiquitous for a year or so each, and, apparently, still read and remembered with treacly nostalgia.

I think we’re all pretty clear, those of us who actually have tried to get along with another person as equals, to share a house or a ride or cubicle or adjacent seats at the movie theater or ball park, that love means constantly saying you’re sorry if you want the relationship to last. Do you ever stick up for what you believe in? Sure. Especially when you’re young, and you think you’re right all the time, or middle aged, when you think that being right is important. Gradually, wisdom begins to teach us, and even more gradually do we actually learn, that being right isn’t all that important most of the time, and things can find their level if we can find a way to live in peace and mutual respect. This state of peace is cultivated by the judicious and frequent use of the words, “I’m sorry.”

I have often been a terrible father, and was worse when my older kids were younger, and I remember sometimes being insanely angry and saying or doing things that make me wince and wonder if it was really me, as I look back at pictures of them when they were such beautiful and vulnerable (yes, and maddening, parroting, and precocious) little kids. But I do remember, and it may or may not be the one saving grace of my miserable fathering, that I tried to say “I’m sorry,” and really mean it, when I was an ogre, and I tried to change my ways and learn from my mistakes (and/or, as Terry has told me at times, unlearn the things imprinted on me from my childhood.) I only hope that, in the course of all that, when I was mean, small, loveless and bitter in times of stress that somehow my genuine penitence, my expression of regret, attempts at redress, and purpose of amendment expressed to them explicitly, will help them in their relationships as they grow. They seem much better adjusted than I was or am already, so maybe there is indeed such a thing as grace.

What occurs to me now is that love doesn’t mean never having to say “I’m sorry,” but love does mean never having to hear “I’m sorry.” In other words, forgiveness is certainly a gift, that much is clear, but so is repentance. It can’t be forced on another person. The genuinely loving thing for us, as sharers in agape, the highest love that does not require anything in return, is to give forgiveness in its purest form, the kind that does not need to be preceded by any expression of sorrow. Forgiveness does not depend on the other person, it depends on us. Forgiveness is an invitation and an empowerment to be sorry. We can’t expect it from another person: that would be a form, it seems to me, of manipulation or tyranny. But everyone makes mistakes. To live in the compassionate awareness of that reality is to let forgiveness come out of us without the expression of regret from the other person, before they’ve even had the opportunity to reflect on their words or actions and regret them. This kind of love is agape, it is a sharing in the paschal mystery, the kind of life that is so rich that it is undiminished by death. Agape bears the pain of rejection because bearing it helps to break the cycle of revenge that makes the world noisy and tense with suspicion and nascent violence.

So, I can hear myself wishing (out loud) in the past that people I've been with would learn to say “I’m sorry” because that would make my way so much easier, but now I understand, as hard as it is to take, that it’s just not my place to expect other people to apologize. How old are you supposed to be to realize this? How out of touch must I be not to be aware of how often I’ve screwed up and have been forgiven, and how insignificant being “right” is most of the time, and especially at home and in church work? As I’ve said before here, if Jesus did not cling to equality with God and became like us, in other words, if he chose to "be sin" rather than staying in the “right” of god-ness, then how silly is it to insist on being right when I’m already utterly human, and full of the arrogance and (tragic, sometimes) buffoonery of error? 

Ah, well. Luckily, life is frequently less a tragedy than a comedy of error. Time to get busy on the novel that will make me rich, I guess, with the memorable tag line, “Love means never having to hear ‘I’m sorry.’” But I suppose that book has already been written.