A few years ago, I apologized to a chair.
I was walking through the living room with a basket-ful of baby toys/blankets to clean up at day’s end and I tripped over the side of our ottoman, knocking into the armchair and sending it into the wall.
Gah! Sorry, I muttered under my breath, re-positioning the chair, surveying the nick in the wall’s paint, up-righting the toppled basket with my other hand. Ken hears from the kitchen, looks up from his soggy cereal and says:
Did you just say Sorry to the furniture?
This has always been a storyline of mine. In a long practiced habit of twisted empathy, I can’t not acknowledge when my actions affect someone (or clearly something) else, and the best way to do that, it had seemed, was to apologize for it.
I’m sorry, I’m confused.
I’m sorry, I don’t agree.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
I’m sorry, chair.
What I’m learning, currently, is that small things are sometimes just small things. Random. Personality tics, idiosyncrasies, quirky mannerisms.
And sometimes small things are bigger.
Last month, one of my girlfriends – a fellow over-apologizer – pointed me to a small piece of advice:
I’m sorry I’m late accepts fault for things you may or may not have been able to control, not entirely at least. Your kid’s last-minute skinned knee. A (real) traffic jam. The weather.
Thanks for your patience acknowledges that you’re late, and that being late isn’t ideal, and that as a result of your late-ness, the other person has (hopefully) granted you patience by waiting.
And that requires a Thank you.
I’m sorry is an apology for your shortcomings.
Thank you is an acknowledgement of others’ virtues.
I am very frequently saying ‘Sorry’ when I mean to say ‘Thank you’, and my girlfriend is very frequently, very gently, reminding me to knock it off.
Don’t apologize for your feelings. Don’t apologize for being a human. Accept it, thank others, move on.
I’ve been practicing. Just last week, I’d been feeling like this – sad, gloomy, blah – and typically, I’d begin the barrage of apologies to Ken, to Bee, to family, to friends. Gah! I’m sorry, I’m just in a terrible mood. I’m working on it.
But instead, this: Thanks for bearing with me. I know I’m kind of a grump today. I totally appreciate you giving me grace.
Ken smiled, said he was happy to, kind of quizzically scratched his head a little, undoubtedly wondering where his little apologizer had gone.
It’s a small thing.
It’s a big thing.
I’ll probably continue to mix up apologies with acknowledgements. I’ll probably twist the two together and bend toward the apology time and time again, succumbing to the default, saying Sorry to the furniture.
It’s nice to practice a different way, too. It’s nice to save the Sorrys for the times I need it, for the times that matter, for the hearts I hurt, for the marks I miss.
And for all of the other times, it’s nice to say Thank you.