7 Words Study: Sorry
Sensitivity Often Requires Restraining Yourself
Perhaps in Please we became aware of a life-vision, and now with Sorry we have a higher degree of awareness of why that vision has to be so. It’s to do with refinement. The refining process is described with the keywords of Sorry — beginning with responsibility; developing the feeling of remorse, then repairing the damage so that we can release our attachments to the past. There are often difficulties arising in life where two motives collide, acted out by individuals or groups and sanctified as causes, creeds, political imperatives and so on. Also there is the more straightforward case where the desire of one doesn’t reconcile with the desire of another. This is so often the case that we can safely see it as the normal life condition; certainly it’s the one that wins most of our attention.
We may think we yearn for unending harmony and yet there’s no evidence for this except the myth of fairy stories that allow protagonists to live happily ever after – after the collision has been resolved, incidentally. The collision of motivations offers us what we actually want and need out of our time on earth. We want collision in order to refine identity, in order to deepen involvements, in order to come to a better knowledge of others and ourselves. Yet there is no need for collision to be seen as beyond our capacity to handle. We can grow to meet the challenges, and the proof that we have grown lies in whether we can release them.
A lot hinges on our concepts of responsibility. We can see this word to mean ‘an unwelcome duty or burden’, and yet we can also see it as the ability to respond. Further, we can accept responsibility for being who and what we are and the effect we have upon another. A highly developed, responsible adult can acknowledge that they are, or at least should be, able to respond to any person or situation without causing upset — and therefore if they do cause upset, they are responsible.
By contrast, let’s consider what it means to be irresponsible. The sense we have is of a person who acts without concern for the effect of their actions, without the ability or intention of controlling themselves in order to act within acceptable limits, someone who cares little for the inconvenience caused to others and does not clean up the mess they make. This person is not to be trusted and allows things to happen that need to be prevented, they are poor leaders and cannot maintain authority, and they are not given to attend to their commitments and duties without close supervision. Ironically, such a person may be the one who says Sorry frequently because they have been found wanting and exposed in their dereliction of duty. For them the Sorry word slips easily off the tongue — and yet is neither meant nor believed in any profound sense. It is an expedient only, and lacks the depth required to ground it in real terms.
In every spiritual teaching the golden rule is seen, reflexive self-consciousness, think about the effect you have on others before you act:
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you
Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
Do not unto another that you would not have him do unto you. Thou needest this law alone. It is the foundation of all the rest.
This is the sum of duty: do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain. (The Mahabharata)
No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
Whatever thou hatest thyself, that do not to another.
Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.
A person who does not feel remorse might be forced to say Sorry as a discipline and yet, in the absence of the true Sorry body state, will say the word with a voice that betrays the lack of sincerity. It is better not to shed crocodile tears; the listener can hear whether or not the message is sincerely felt because the voice expresses itself quite clearly and authentically with its tone so that content and quality are in agreement — what is said and how it’s said are in harmony. Authenticity is always a true gift and any false declaration of feeling will rebound. In some cases, we cannot access the feelings expected of us, and yet always it is rather more proper to give voice to the truth. Words can always be found to avoid offence.
At times we allow ourselves to do something that we know will create an unwanted result. We all do it. Perhaps the first important thing is to be honest with ourselves about the fact that we knowingly do what is wrong. Whether this is a little thing or a big thing is actually secondary — we still feel the prick of conscience. This lets us know that our thoughts, words or actions have impinged badly upon the outer universe and offers an opportunity to reaffirm our intention to do the right thing next time. The prick of conscience and the related feelings of remorse are rather subtle and so we need to be careful to ‘listen out’ for them. They show us the path towards release and the healing that release affords.
Keywords for Sorry
The association that is made between Sorry and guilt is a major concern because it often stimulates a defensive attitude of pride, which is really quite the reverse of what is required. Faults arise—and it is indeed sometimes through a carelessness that amounts to irresponsibility or even negligence, yet blame does not repair the damage, neither does it prevent recurrence. Responsibility does. The past is past; blame pulls us back. What works is to establish who is able and willing to respond to future needs.
People are programmed to believe that to say Sorry is to take the blame, and so there is nothing left to say to capture the meaning of: ‘I regret my insensitivity and feel sympathy and remorse for any distress it may have caused’. This does appear a healthier interpretation than ‘I’m guilty and therefore a bad person’ which seems to be what underlies the reluctance many people have to say Sorry.
It is useful to distinguish between the quality of pity or compassion and the quality of remorse. It is a gentle courtesy to express sorrow on receiving the news of someone’s bereavement—we might even say ‘I’m sorry to learn of your grandfather’s death’—yet this is not remorse; it is sympathy. Perhaps what we mean might be better put: ‘I am sorrowing to hear of your loss.’ Remorse suggests a feeling of regret that arises on discovering that something we have done, or omitted to do, has resulted in the pain or inconvenience of another. In other words: a) we accept responsibility, and b) we feel regret. Without these two factors, any apparent expression of remorse will seem inappropriate or hollow, lacking sincerity.
A person who is fully self-responsible and sensitive to the feelings of others will feel remorse if their behaviour impinges painfully upon another—and will hurry to make amends. That bit is rather important—to make amends. ‘If it’s my fault, then it’s my responsibility to repair the damage’. Only then will both parties be able to release any emotional issues that have arisen and truly to forgive and forget.
In most cases—at least on a personal level—the primary requirement to relieve injury is to offer attention, so that the person quickly understands that there is recognition that they feel hurt or inconvenienced by our insensitivity. Attention is a real force; it has effect. Allowing someone the opportunity to speak of their pain, to complain and even to criticise or blame, we are helping them to release—which is nicely described as ‘letting off steam’. Often there may well additionally be a need for appropriate material compensation to a level that satisfactorily deals with the injured party’s feelings.
Perhaps we can renew our sense of what forgiveness is, and how to practise it more easily by making it a bit more everyday and ordinary—not linked to pride, blame and guilt. Something more like this: ‘I’m not attached to an image of myself as faultless, my behaviour was wrong or insensitive and I regret causing pain or inconvenience. I feel remorse and ask for forgiveness in order to release the emotional tension arising out of possible resentment’. If an experience of Sorry is true and profound, then all issues are dissolved. Forgiveness arises; the past hurts and resentments become softer and softer until we can actually forget the insult or intrusion.
The wisdom of Sorry
Perhaps in Please we became aware of a life-vision, and now with Sorry we have a higher degree of awareness of why that vision has to be so. It’s to do with refinement. The refining process is described with the keywords of Sorry—beginning with responsibility; developing the feeling of remorse, then repairing the damage so that we can release our attachments to the past.
There are often difficulties arising in life where two motives collide, acted out by individuals or groups and sanctified as causes, creeds, political imperatives and so on. Also there is the more straightforward case where the desire of one doesn’t reconcile with the desire of another. This is so often the case that we can safely see it as the normal life condition; certainly it’s the one that wins most of our attention. We wouldn’t have much of an entertainment industry if our books and films had a story line based on harmony: Woman meets man; they build a lovely house and family together, never have any problems or disagreements and spend their time appreciating the flowers, until they simultaneously die of natural causes aged 92. As a story it rather lacks bite doesn’t it?
The collision of motivations offers us what we actually want and need out of our time on Earth. We may think we yearn for unending harmony and yet there’s no evidence for this except the myth of fairy stories that allow protagonists to live happily ever after. (After the collision has been resolved, incidentally). We want collision in order to refine identity, in order to deepen involvements, in order to come to a better knowledge of others and ourselves. Yet there is no need for collision to be seen as beyond our capacity to handle. We can grow to meet the challenges, and the proof that we have grown lies in whether we can release them.
Our natural condition is one of self-confidence, evidenced by babies and young children, who are often fearless to the point of recklessness. In order to reclaim and build upon it, we need to practise the four keywords of No, which will establish strong enforceable boundaries, and a clear awareness of who we uniquely are, and what we choose to feel and think about things, irrespective of pressure from peers, parents and politics. The final test, which can raise us up to become very commanding and impressive spiritual beings, is to speak only the truth in every situation. This is not only evidence of confidence, it also builds it. And make no mistake, confidence is power.
Though it really seems as though we are all separate beings, the spiritual wisdom is that in fact we are all One, and the sense we have of separation is actually an illusion. It is feasible to experience this as a self-evident, intuitively obvious truth for those willing to go on a spiritual retreat and practise certain exercises that expand consciousness. Having experienced this, or having faith in the idea, we want to behave appropriately in our everyday affairs. Such behaviour is called reflexive self-consciousness and is the essence of the mystery of Sorry, accessed by the associated keywords.
We not only express remorse and make amends when we learn that we have impinged insensitively upon another – we learn to avoid doing so, and find a way to get what we want without upsetting anyone else. This is not a question of morality; it is a question of what works best for all concerned. Inevitably we reap what we sow, so it serves as an expedient strategy; it is also a more elegant way to express personality. The continued practise of this golden rule is an entirely valid, effective spiritual path.
Hubris, insensitivity, carelessness, missing the point, shallow relationships, lack of understanding, insularity, joyless pleasure, inconsequential life path.
Since life is nothing without real relationship, these people tend not to reach the depth of experience that is available to others. True relationship is deepened as we soften the ego, and care about the effect we have on others. Someone who has no sense of remorse gets to become rather dried up, aloof and actually proud of their sad insularity as the proof of how impregnable is their fortress mentality.
Some people take it upon themselves to be responsible for another's faults, yet whereas a healthy degree of sensitivity and honest self-criticism naturally forms a part of the normal person's psychological profile, there are limits beyond which it is not helpful to burden oneself. The child of a martyr can grow to become a martyr. They can grow to display a self-pitying personality and be given to victim consciousness — in other words, they expect to be ‘done to’; they feel it’s all their fault — ‘It is true; I am guilty’. In another frame of mind they might become persecutor and be lost in blame. ‘It’s his fault; he’s to blame. Punish him’.
If humanity would only release guilt and blame, what a joyful day that would be! Where is the advantage in blame? Who gains? And why must we consider the phrase ‘at fault’ to be synonymous with ‘guilty’?
The law is based on a fairly simple set of ideas: The community decides rules and those who go against them are accountable to the community to make good restitution or suffer loss of personal liberty. It seems reasonable. However – what about the responsibility of the lawmakers and the enforcers? Are they also fully accountable? If not then justice is a sham, just a means to control the poor and maintain the currency of those in power. It’s not justice; it’s a device of power.
Democracy is held up as a high ideal and the expression of fairness in politics. Perhaps we need to look again at this. Clearly it is preferable to tyranny — but equally clearly it doesn’t actually work very well the way we operate it at the moment. New ways need to be found so that those in power are made more liable in law — and those who are unwilling to account for their mistakes are removed from positions of authority.