Top Ten Words to Keep Out of an Apology

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Almost everyone feels to need to make an apology at one time or another–no one of us is perfect–but surprisingly few of us know how to do it well. A good apology should be direct, sincere and pure. It should contain three elements: (1) a clear and unqualified admission of what I did wrong, (2) an expression of sorrow for what I did to you (including an acknowledgment of the harm I caused you) and (3) a commitment, to the extent it’s possible, to make things right (including a description of my corrective actions). But it’s hard to spit out those words. I want to make myself look good. I want to make my bad choice look not-so-bad. And I want everyone to know that I’m not as big a jerk as my actions make me appear. So I tend to let these ten words sneak into my apology. None has any place there.

10. Apologize. Ironically, the word “apologize” does not belong in a good apology. “I apologize” is a lukewarm substitute for “I’m sorry”. Even worse is its black-sheep cousin: “I want to apologize”. Instead of saying that I want to apologize, why don’t I actually apologize by saying “I’m sorry”? Even worse than “apologize” is yet another close relative …

9. Regret. Just say “I’m sorry”. “Regret” is a weasel word I use when I choke on the word “sorry”. If “sorry” was a beer, then “regret” would be “sorry lite”. “Sorry” means: “I feel bad that I did this to you.” “Regret” means “Gosh, I wish that hadn’t happened.” Which leads me to another blacklisted word …

8. Happen. A poor apology obscures my responsibility for the harm that resulted from my bad choice. “Happen” is my ally in that  effort, as in “I’m just sorry all this had to happen.” Using the word “happen” implies that the harm done to you was the end result of an unavoidable chain of events, not anyone’s fault–bad luck, really. Better to say it this way: “I’m sorry I talked about you behind your back and betrayed our friendship.” Also avoid the use of happen’s good pal: “occur”. And those two bad boys like to hang out with …

7. Incident. This is another good word to add to my avoidance-of-responsibility arsenal. It can be effectively used to mask my thoughtless actions, as in: “I regret the incident.” It helps me evade responsibility by failing to describe what I did and failing to identify me as the culprit. Just an unfortunate series of events. Close by “incident” in the dictionary is yet another word to avoid …

6. Inconvenience. This is a great word to use when I want to minimize the seriousness of the harm I caused you. Businesses are notorious for using it to downplay the impact of their mistakes, as in: “We may have failed to keep your personal financial information safe and secure from hackers. We sincerely regret any inconvenience this may cause our valued customers.” That reminds me of another word never to use …

5. If. When I apologize, it’s not a question of IF I made a bad choice, it’s a question of WHAT bad choice I made and HOW that choice hurt you. “If” is frequently paired with its evil cousin “offend” to come up with this non-apology: “If I offended anyone by saying that NASCAR fans are beer-swilling idiots, I am truly sorry.” Is there anyone on the planet who thinks that statement would provide the least bit of comfort  to stock-car aficionados? It not only repeats the insult but fails to acknowledge its undeniable offensiveness. But the real fault lies in the way it throws the burden back on the victim, saying in fancier language: “If you are so thin-skinned that you took offense at my humorous remark, then I guess I have to apologize.” It reminds of another word that often fouls up an otherwise good apology …

4. Sincere. Or its partner in crime, “truly”. If I have to say that I “sincerely apologize” or am “truly sorry”, then chances are that the apology is not at all sincere and the sorrow is far from true. One cannot make an apology sincere by saying it is so. It is up to the apology’s recipient to decide whether the apology is sincere and the sorrow is true. If I use those words in my apology and then I’m called out on it, I may be tempted to say I …

3. Misspoke. Politicians use this word a lot. I’m not sure what it means, but I think this is it: “I accidentally said what I really think, and it’s landed me in hot water.” If one means to say “cooperate” but says “copulate” instead, that’s a true misspeak. Don’t laugh, I did that. In front of my pastor. Twice in a row. True story. I was tempted to blame someone else for my embarrassing error by using one of these unacceptable words …

2. He, She and They. Third-person pronouns have no place in an apology. It’s about two people only: me and you. Sure, I might not be totally to blame for what was done to you, but an apology is no place to bring that up. It’s a place for me to acknowledge my part in the harm you suffered and to ask forgiveness for it. Those pronouns are often followed by a conjunction, the #1 word that should never be found in an apology …

1. But. Just as apology is no place to introduce third parties who may also be at fault, it is no place for me to introduce extenuating circumstances that might mitigate my fault. “I’m sorry I ran the red light and T-boned your car, but the sun was in my eyes.” Even worse is to use “but” to argue that the recipient of the apology bears some of the blame too. “”I’m sorry I ran the red light and T-boned your car, but you should have known that nobody stops for red lights anymore.”

There may be a time and a place to discuss others who may be at fault. And perhaps at a later date the victim of my poor choice might be interested in hearing how I came to make such a choice and why I’m not really the heartless human being that my current conduct seems to indicate. Just maybe the recipient of my apology might be generous enough to initiate discussion of his or her part in the entire incident. But when making my apology, I need to set those aside. It’s about me, what I did to you, how sorry I am, and what I am going to do for you to try to set things right. Don’t diminish the quality of an apology–and thereby diminish its potential to effect reconciliation–by cluttering it up with any of these ten words.

Accepting Responsibility for “Dangerous Behaviors”

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I ate a chocolate donut Saturday morning. It had chocolate frosting. And a rich creamy filling. I didn’t need to examine a nutritional label to know that it was lousy with sugar, probably corn syrup. No doubt it contained bunches and bunches of trans fats too. But it was good. Oh so good. I washed it down with a hot cup of Starbucks coffee, dark roast loaded with caffeine, a robust brew that gives me a jolt with my first swallow.

Should I be able start my weekend with a delicious donut and a hot cup of eye-opening coffee? Or must the government step in and protect me–after a hard week at the office–from my Saturday-morning urge to eat a sugar-infused ball of fried fat? I’ve been an adult for decades now. I’m reasonably intelligent. I work out six days a week. I’ve had an annual physical ever since I started seeing age 50 in the rear-view mirror. I have run more long-distance races than I can count. And nothing hangs over my belt when I zip up my jeans. Can I be trusted with responsibility for my own food choices?

Some people say “No”. A recent New York Times op-ed piece, “Rethinking our ‘Rights’ to Dangerous Behaviors”, argues that government needs to take responsibility to make food choices for me and the rest of us. The author ominously begins his essay with these words:  “It has become increasingly clear that food companies engineer hyperprocessed foods in ways precisely geared to most appeal to our tastes.” In other words, the businesses that supply me with food are making products that taste good so that I will buy them. This, apparently, is evil.

And what’s a do-gooder scare story without some dark corporate conspiracy cast as the villain. In this tale it’s “an alliance of corporations, banks, marketers and others that essentially promote and benefit from unhealthy lifestyles”. In other words, they make money by giving me the food I want to eat. This cabal “designs products that are difficult to resist and sometimes addictive”! This tactic–Warning! Hyperbole Ahead!–”poses greater threats to our existence than any communicable disease you can name”. (Really? My chocolate donut is more dangerous than smallpox? Polio? HIV? Ebola? The Plague??) The remedy: “[R]eturn to the public sector the right to set health policy”. In other words, get the government to stop companies from selling me food that I want to eat.

How about trying another strategy that not only respects our freedom but also promotes good health and personal responsibility? Why not educate the public about healthy foods? Why not encourage easy-to-understand food labels so I know what’s in the food that companies are trying to sell me? Why not explain to me how good food choices are directly linked to longer life and more years to spend with the people I love? And then let me take responsibility for my own food choices. The problem, I fear, is that do-gooders don’t like the food choices that I–and the rest of you–are making and want to make those choices for us.

And another thing: corporations are not inherently evil. They are just amoral devices designed to give us what we want. If we decide that we want highly-caffeinated, over-priced beverages, Starbucks rises up and turns a profit. If we decide that local-produced, organic food is what we want, Whole Foods springs forth and makes a bunch of money. Apple just made news by rejecting a stockholder proposal to eliminate Apple’s environmentally-friendly initiatives. Perhaps one reason it did so is that consumers are rewarding Apple for its stewardship of our earth by purchasing more iPhones, iPads and iPods. It has learned that green is good for business. Corporations are organizations designed to make money by efficiently giving us what we want. They will offer us healthy and humanely-produced food–and make money in the process–if we demand healthy and humanely-produced food from them.

A government does its citizens no favor by accepting the responsibility to make good choices for their supposed benefit. In a free society the government educates its citizens about the impact of their choices and encourages them to make good ones. But it leaves to its citizens the responsibility for those choices. And that entails accepting the consequences of those choices if those choices turn out to be ill-advised.

I know those orange gumdrop slices have no nutritional value. But they bring a smile to my face when I treat myself with them every once in a while. And I’m not a big red-meat guy, but a good hamburger every now and then adds quality to my life. And here’s my little secret: I bought two of those chocolate donuts. I saved one for later. It’s calling to me from the kitchen. I just may say yes to that call. Right now.

Top Ten Prison Demands of Anders Breivik

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Anders Breivik is a mass murderer. On July 22, 2011, he bombed a government building in Oslo, killing 8 people, and then proceeded to an island youth camp where he stalked and killed 69 children. His goal was to get publicity for his anti-Muslim, anti-woman views. He was convicted of the 77 murders and sentenced to the maximum prison sentence Norwegian law allows.

Apparently prison is not to his liking. He is threatening to go on a hunger strike if the warden doesn’t meet his 12 non-negotiable demands. Among them are a larger gym, a comfy sofa for his cell and a replacement for the obsolete PlayStation2 on which he’s been forced to play his video games. The Washington Post article I read doesn’t reveal the other nine complaints, but this is my guess of what they are–with one more to make it an even top ten.

10. Dancercise class offered only three times a week.

9. Prison chef failed to graduate from Ecole du Cordon Bleu with high honors.

8. Valet leaves too many wrinkles when ironing hankies.

7. Inadequate supply of those paper umbrellas for pool-side Mai Tais

6. Wait staff persists in serving from the right and clearing from the left.

5. Broadband speed too slow (took an agonizingly-long ten minutes to download Shawshank Redemption).

4. Beaujolais is served at a nauseatingly warm fifty degrees.

3. Evening chocolate on the pillow is a prosaic Swiss variety, not Belgian prime.

2. Martinis are stirred not shaken.

1. Justin Beiber on the prison sound system!

DISCLAIMERS:

–Yes, I am aware that 77 murders are no laughing matter.

–Yes, I am aware that all prisoners–even convicted mass murderers–deserve humane prison conditions.

—-But, really. A sofa and an updated PlayStation? Part of accepting responsibility is working one’s way through the consequences of one’s choices.

George Patton: Qualities of a Great Leader

George Patton was profane. He was arrogant. He was a headline-seeking showman. He was dismissive—even disrespectful—to those who had authority over him. I think you get the picture: he had his faults. But he was a leader. And one helluva general. We can learn something even from imperfect leaders.

The general was old-school. Born in the 19th Century, Patton gained appointment to the U.S. Military Academy as the new century dawned. Rising quickly through the ranks, he was a combat veteran of World War I, mentored by the American commander, General “Blackjack” Pershing. When a couple of decades later the world teetered on the brink of another world war, Patton was ready. He distinguished himself as a military commander in north Africa, Sicily, France and Germany. Soon after World War II ended Patton was killed in a motor-vehicle collision at the age of 60 .

Patton was introduced to a new generation of Americans in the 1970 film titled–of course–Patton. The opening scene–his famous “blood and guts” speech to his troops as they prepared to go into battle for the first time–remains one of the most famous scenes and greatest speeches in movie history. The film won a Best-Picture Oscar as well as Best Actor for George C. Scott. It showed Patton at his worst–slapping a soldier hospitalized with combat fatigue (now known as traumatic stress disorder) because Patton thought him a coward–and at his best, leading an armored column during the Battle of the Bulge to break the encirclement of American troops in Bastogne.

While still a cadet at West Point, the young George Patton composed a list of the qualities he had to possess in order to become—as he was sure he would—a great general. The same qualities that make one a great general are the qualities that make one a great leader even if one never leads a single soldier into combat. Here is George Patton’s list. (Only the words in italics are Patton’s; I have to accept responsibility for the rest.).

1. Tactically aggressive
A good leader does not back away from a fight and even looks for ways to test the leader’s team. Better to lose and learn from it than to timidly know neither victory nor defeat.

2. Strength of character
A leader actually never leads; the leader is followed. Subtle but important difference. One must be a person worthy of being followed before people will choose to follow.

3. Steadiness of Purpose
One must be sure of one’s plan and steadfastly follow it through, even in the midst of disappointing setbacks. Faint heart never won fair lady. Neither did it ever win a battle nor achieve any other kind of difficult objective.

4. Acceptance of Responsibility
I doubt that General Patton thought much of Harry Truman, but he must have liked the President’s famous slogan: “The buck stops here.” Like the hat salesman from Missouri, Patton knew that leadership was lonely because it requires tough decisions that are the leader’s and the leader’s alone.

5. Energy
Being a leader–especially a general with a combat command–is hard work. One doesn’t always get a full night’s sleep. When the enemy has troops surrounded, you may not get sleep for several nights as your tanks rush to break through the lines and save the day. Your troops sleep first; if they’re on the go then you are too.

6. Good health and strength
A good leader sets an example for the rest of the team. If the leader wants the team to be in shape and ready to serve, then the leader must be healthy and strong too.

To that list the great general should perhaps have added four more qualities to make it an even ten. Had he done so–and displayed those qualities in greater measure himself–his legacy would today be untarnished.

7. Always treat subordinates with respect.
After slapping a soldier he considered a coward, Patton saw no combat command for over a year as a world war raged around him. He was given command of a phantom army, the decoy invasion force used to trick the Germans into thinking that the invasion of Europe would come from Calais.

8. Obey the chain of command.
The army, like just about any good organization, has clear lines of authority. This means that sometimes I’m taking orders from someone younger than me, not as smart as me, and holding down a job that rightfully should be mine. I must obey my mediocre superior anyway.

9. Consider the possibility of error.
One never wants to be commanded by a general assailed by doubt and devoid of self-confidence. Likewise, it’s dangerous to have a commander who’s 100% sure he’s right and won’t consider contrary views. One wants a commander who stops for a moment and says: “Is it possible that I’m wrong?”

10. Humility
As a devout Christian and a student of the Bible, Patton undoubtedly was familiar with this verse from Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” And this one too: “Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble.”

Top Ten Things Never Heard in a Barber Shop

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If you’re woman–or a man under 50–you may never have set foot in an old-fashioned barber shop. What goes on in there? Would you like to listen in on the sparkling conversation? Go ahead, eavesdrop all you want; you’ll never hear these words spoken:

  1. Hey, those women on Fox News wear their skirts a bit too short, don’t you think? I mean, how do they sit down in those things?
  2. Oh, I don’t want to bore you with all the details of my prostate surgery. Let’s talk about something else.
  3. I really think this Obamacare thing is going to work, don’t you?
  4. Those Wall Street bankers don’t get nearly enough credit for pumping up our economy, do they? And why are they so underpaid?
  5. Football really is a pretty darned dangerous sport. My guess is that in 5 years we’ll be watching soccer on Sunday afternoon.
  6. Ford, Chevy–who cares? One’s just the same as the other.
  7. Isn’t the Detroit Lions front office just top-notch? Too bad their ball-players keep letting them down every year.
  8. Nancy Pelosi? We need more people like her in Washington.
  9. Have you tried that new Lean Cuisine?  Mighty tasty.
  10. Isn’t gasoline a bargain? $3.50 a gallon! How are the oil companies making any money at that price?

Telling Her Story

Only two people know what really happened between Woody Allen and his seven-year-old daughter 22 years ago. The prosecutor opted not to charge Allen with child molesting way back then even though he said there was “probable cause” to do so. This is America, after all, and Allen is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But an adult Dylan Farrow felt the need to tell her story as she saw Hollywood shower accolade after accolade on her father and hear star after star sing his praises.

So she told that story in an open letter published in Saturday’s New York Times. Readers of this blog will find her story all too familiar; it is remarkably similar to the stories written by childhood sexual assault victims and published in this blog’s Voice of Violence series. Justin, Christine, Lisa and Pauline all had the courage to write their stories and give me permission to publish them in 2012.

Those Voice of Violence stories are a reminder to us that child victims of sexual assault can suffer profound harm. Ms. Farrow says:

 That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself.

They are also a reminder of the harm that can be done to a child just by being caught up in the court system:

I … didn’t know the firestorm it would trigger. I didn’t know that my father would use his sexual relationship with my sister to cover up the abuse he inflicted on me. I didn’t know that he would accuse my mother of planting the abuse in my head and call her a liar for defending me. I didn’t know that I would be made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying as part of a legal battle I couldn’t possibly understand. At one point, my mother sat me down and told me that I wouldn’t be in trouble if I was lying – that I could take it all back. I couldn’t. It was all true. But sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily. There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.

The final reminder these stories provide is how important it is to protect our children and treat them as the vulnerable and valuable creatures they are. We teach our kids not to talk to or get in the car with a stranger, but the truth is that most child sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the child’s parent thinks he or she can trust: a sibling, a stepparent, a coach, a cousin, a youth pastor, the next-door neighbor. They may eventually learn to cope with past abuse but unless they are among the most fortunate they will neither forget nor fully recover from it. Just ask Justin, Christine, Lisa, and Pauline. And perhaps Dylan Farrow would like you to ask her too.

Forgiveness Is Not …

I’ve published close to 200 posts to this blog, almost all of them about accepting responsibility for poor choices, for decisions that hurt someone else . But I rarely write about the other side of that coin: what if it’s me who’s been hurt? What about someone who betrays me and then fails to accept responsibility for that choice–or even acknowledge that he or she has hurt me? What’s my responsibility then?

The short answer is this: forgive. But what is forgiveness? It’s not being a doormat. It’s not letting people push me around. Or take advantage of me. What is it? Sometimes the best way to define something is to explain what it is NOT.

  1. Forgiveness is not condoning bad behavior.
    To forgive another, I need not passively accept his bad behavior without objection. I’m required to be neither pushover nor perpetual victim. I need to call out betrayals; I must stand up to those whose thoughtless actions affect me. Neither is it making excuses for that person’s poor choices. The act of forgiveness is itself an acknowledgement that what he did to me was wrong: it was inexcusable. (A good choice–or an excusable bad one–need not be forgiven.)
  2. Forgiveness is not ignoring bad behavior.
    It’s always easier to pretend there’s no elephant in my living room. I vacuum around it. I dress it up with a pretty lace doily and tell myself it’s an end table. It’s easier to ignore the strange charges mysteriously appearing on the Visa bill, the unexplained evening absences, the furtive text messaging. Maybe I tell myself that I’m a good person, that good people forgive and that forgiveness means pretending that my loved one is not betraying me. Maybe I tell myself that I have to pretend there’s no elephant sitting in my living room. But forgiveness means no such thing.
  3. Forgiveness is not accepting responsibility for another’s bad behavior.
    I do the guilty party no favor by accepting blame for a betrayal. He or she will no doubt be eager for me to do it. Even encourage me to do it. Some of us are masters at blaming others for our poor choices. And people who habitually victimize others are adept at turning tables and blaming victims for the harm done to them. I suppose they do it so they can sleep at night and live in their own skins. But taking blame that isn’t rightly mine is not forgiveness. I cannot forgive anyone for a wrong unless I first affix blame for that wrong squarely on the shoulders of the person I’m forgiving. I can’t forgive unless I admit there is someone to forgive. And that that someone isn’t me.
  4. Forgiveness is not reconciliation.
    Lucy holds the football. Charlie Brown tries to kick it. But each time–every autumn for decades–Lucy pulls the football back. And Charlie Brown ends up flat on his back. One has to admire C.B. for his unflagging faith in the goodness of human nature and the possibility of personal transformation, but at the same time don’t we all think that he’s a fool? Forgiveness doesn’t require that I persist in putting myself in a situation where the same person can hurt me in the same way again and again. “I love you Lucy, but I won’t kick your football anymore” is entirely consistent with forgiveness. And some wrongs don’t deserve even a second chance. I may forgive you if you sexually molest my daughter or granddaughter, but buddy you’re never getting near that kid ever again even if you are her neighbor/uncle/pastor/coach.
  5. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
    Memory is not an act of the will; I cannot choose to forget. Forgetting is something that happens passively, gradually over time as memory fades. I can choose not to dwell on a past betrayal, not to nurse a grievance like it was the refrigerator’s last cold beer on a hot day. I can choose not to mention it, not to bring it up in the heat of future arguments. But I can’t choose to forget it. And sometimes it’s best to keep a betrayal in the back of my mind in order to protect myself from a repeat performance. (I forgive my cheating spouse, but I’m still checking the Visa bill and cell-phone records every so often.)

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So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is letting loose of the hold a guilty person on my heart. Forgiveness is letting go of my bitterness toward that person before it spreads and infects other areas of my life. Forgiveness is a gift I give to myself, not to the person who’s betrayed me. Forgiveness is choosing not to hate. Forgiveness is foregoing vengeance. Forgiveness is admitting I’m not perfect, and I’ve been forgiven when it’s me who screwed up.  Forgiveness is letting go of the past and pressing on to greater achievements of the future. Forgiveness is severing the anchor chain holding me to the past and setting sail into new waters. Forgiveness is freedom.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
–Nelson Mandela

This post was inspired by a sermon given by Mark Beeson, my senior pastor at Granger Community Church, He based his message on Pete Wilson’s book, Let Hope In.  I have few useful thoughts that are my own, and I thought their insights were too important not to share. Of course, any misguided statements, faulty analysis or insensitive remarks are mine and mine alone. I take full responsibility for any errors in the content.