On Tuesday it was Sorry Day. We held Credo Gathering outside in the laneway, before a backdrop of an Aboriginal flag and the urban Dreamtime mural that is painted on the wall of the adjoining hotel. Coco, who is not indigenous but could somehow pass as such, read out the acknowledgment to the traditional owners of the land. Gin read the story of a man who, along with his siblings, was stolen from his mother. We lit candles as we prayed for this man and others. I lit a candle and said “Sorry”.
I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. It came to my attention a while ago, when I was with Nick. I noticed that he never said sorry for anything. He would arrive hours late armed with excuses rather than apologies. Ill-fated circumstances were never attributed to himself – they were always somehow out of his control.
In some ways, I admired Nick’s ability to recognise where he was not to blame. Some things are out of your control, even if you are involved in the incident. I compare Nick’s aversion to saying sorry with my own tendency to be unceasingly apologetic at times. Nick’s son, Marrick, picked me up on it during a game of ball – I threw badly and instinctively said “Sorry”. “There’s no need to apologise,” he said, with incredible clarity for a 6-year-old. “It’s only a game.”
Over dahl and shahi paneer with Despina at my favourite Indian restaurant, we chatted about the word ‘sorry’. Like me, Despina apologises a lot. “In Greek,” she said, “they don’t have the word ‘sorry’. When I went to Greece I had the experience of not being able to apologise for everything I did. It was really weird.”
So in Greece, I confirmed, if you accidentally knock someone on the train, you don’t say sorry. If you’re late, you don’t say sorry. What if you do something really bad, I wanted to know? Well, she answered, you explain your actions. You don’t – you can’t – say ‘sorry’.
“Actually,” said Despina, “There is one phrase that you can use. It’s something like ‘I have an ill feeling’. You use it if you’ve done something bad.”
An ill feeling. Very different from a flippant ‘sorry’. You wouldn’t use it if you knocked someone on the train, for example, or were five minutes late for an appointment. This phrase, whatever it is, seems to show that you are aching inside because of your own actions.
‘Sorry’ says that you regret something you’ve done. Perhaps it is also a request to be excused by the person you did wrong to. Stating that you feel terrible about doing something is different. You are not asking for forgiveness. You are not even really saying, outright, that you did something wrong. You are just describing your feelings in the aftermath.
Women, I have noticed, say sorry a lot. I think we generally feel more guilty than men – guilty, it often seems, of our own existence. Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Gospel According to Woman”, puts it like this: In the West guilt seems to be part of the female condition. When we women have cause to feel guilty we wallow in it, and when we have no cause we manufacture one, in a way men simply do not do.
Armstrong goes on to describe the guilt of women who return to work after having children, and the guilt of women who stay at home. Women are guilty about failed relationships and bratty kids. We are trained not to be assertive and to prelude a criticism or to herald our presence with an apology that might be verbal (I’m sorry to disturb you…sorry to insist on this…sorry to have to tell you that your work is appalling) or it might simply be a deprecating smile or apologetic shrug.
Armstrong links this obsession with apologising with the guilt we have inherited from centuries of Christian thought blaming all women for the sins of Eve, who, apparently, introduced evil into the world. According to the Church Fathers, we are all Eves.
Personally, I’d like to try living for a while without the existence of the word ‘sorry’. For times I really needed to apologise, I could just say, “I feel sick inside for what I’ve done”.
But, for our Indigenous friends, this might not be enough. I do feel sick inside for what colonialism has done to Aboriginal people and communities. But I don’t think ill feelings alone cut it. What is required is a reaching out; a statement that what has transpired is morally wrong. A plea for forgiveness – if not for the individual but for the wider society.
I think there is something healing about the word ‘sorry’, when used well. Maybe when we women use it too often, we devalue its currency.