Sorry is a powerful word. Whether used individually or collectively, it carries an emotional force that, in the best of circumstances, is life-changing.
Yet when it comes to healing serious hurt or conflict, I am increasingly sure that saying sorry is rarely enough.
An apology has its greatest power when someone unreservedly acknowledges the harm they have done to other people. Admitting "I caused this" is difficult. It can take many people a long time and much backsliding to get that point. Making excuses, looking for "both sides to the story", feeling miserable or resentful that you have been caught out, or self-pitying because your dignity and reputation are now sullied are all quite different responses from recognising and unconditionally regretting the damaging effects of your choices and actions on other people's lives.
A meaningful apology leaves excuses behind. It must arise from a willingness to take complete responsibility for your actions, but even that is not enough. It must also be based on a resolve not to cause such pain again. Fear of losing other people's love and respect, rationalisations, panic: all of that is essentially self-focused. It's about "you", not "them" and is even a faint hope that you might get away with it next time.
I have heard several painful stories where people talked about much-loved family members who are fluent in the language of apology but seemingly unable to make any real change to their behaviour. While each story is different, that awful sense of "Here we go again" is much the same.
I can add my own situation to these stories where by my ex-husband was very controlling and emotionally and verbally abusive. He degraded me to the lowest emotional point of my life. He knew just what buttons to press to hurt me by throwing everything from my past back into my face. And when he realised he had pushed me to the point of leaving, it was always the same "Lets give it another go, I am sorry, I will change".........I finally left in March 2000 after 15 years but that is another story for another day.
Conventional psychological thinking pushes people to find reasons why they or their loved ones are behaving badly: terrible parents, parents who were too kind; too much money or too little; poor self-image or excessive ego. Almost any scenario will do.
Some factors are significant. We don't enter or move through life with equal gifts or insights. But "reasons why" can also be perilously distracting. The primary cause of behaviour that hurts other people is rarely in the past. The past matters, but less than the way someone thinks about themselves and other people right now, in the present moment.
Are they willing to recognise their power to care about other people whether or not they "feel like it"?
My husband and the other people all see themselves as the primary victims of their own behaviour. The suffering they are causing others is less urgent for them than their own emotional needs and desires. Until they reverse that, and make their daily choices with far more active regard for other people, whatever sorrow they may feel for the pain they are causing will remain muted and ineffective.
Waking up to our power to harm - or uplift - others is crucial to emotional maturity.
It is the way out of self-centredness and, while challenging, is the only way to make saying sorry meaningful.
What it adds up to is taking unconditional responsibility for the effect of all our choices and actions on other people.
Stanwell Park, Sydney, July 2007: "The Path We Walk"