Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Power of Contrition & Apology

In a recent article Dan Berrett looked at the moral benefits of Rev. John I. Jenkin’s apology to the parents of a student who died in an accident while in the care of his university. As the president of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. Jenkins startled the academic world with his public apology that crossed the grain of the more traditional responses of defensiveness and silence.

While many have been impressed with Father Jenkin’s courage in taking the blame for the student’s death, others view his public apology as a risky gamble that could jeopardize the university legally or economically. The article reports some critical issues that organizations consider when deciding whether to apologize or not for perceived mistakes, injustices, accidents, or deaths.

Organizations are not alone in this decision process. Every individual goes through a similar decision making process when deciding whether to apologize or not for something we’ve done or said to our spouse, our kids, our coworkers or our neighbors. Our final decisions may not be so public or come under such scrutiny, but we would benefit in examining our decision making process, as I did, to consider the true basis of for making that decision to say “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

In high profile cases, organizational leaders normally consult with their lawyers to consider the financial or legal risks involved in public admission of sorrow or apology. Of course, it makes sense to seek council, but such risk assessment centers primarily on self preservation and does not necessarily focus on the victim or family’s needs during such a time. It begs the question, “Is admission of sorrow and apology given for image management and damage control, or is it given sincerely out of grief for the damage and hurt done to others?”

Lest I be accused of casting stones at others, let me throw a few at myself. I may not consult lawyers in making a decision about apologizing, but I certainly do a risk assessment! What will she think of me? Will she retaliate with cruel words? What if I admit I was wrong? Will she heap me with more criticism? Maybe she’ll melt and admit her wrong. Maybe she won’t ever consider promoting me again. I have scanned the potential risk for myself without a thought about whether an apology would benefit the other person!

In his article Dan Berret did allude to the benefits of contrition and apology. The family could be grateful. He pointed out that “families want compassion, care, and even an apology: a heartfelt sincere statement that 'I’m sorry.’” And herein lies the heart of the virtue of contrition. Admission of regret and apologizing for wrongs are powerful because they minister grace to those who have experienced offense or loss. God has prescribed contrite sorrow and apology as the means of healing relationships devastated by wrongs.

God knows how people work. He knows that genuine sorrow and apology benefit the recipient. The offended receives whispers of grace and kindness from those least likely to give it. Expressions of genuine sorrow or regret communicate compassion when compassion is least expected. A person’s apology shares the burden of blame for shattered relationships and demonstrates the value he places on restoring that relationship. A humble apology creates an atmosphere of openness that nurtures restoration.

God knows that contrition and apology benefit the giver as well by helping to relieve his heavy burden of guilt and regret. By apologizing, the offender is relieved of the inclination to hide or distance himself from others. A person’s honest acknowledgment of fault is critical before healthy changes can take place. But most of all a personal encounter marked by repentance marks the first steps down the path of restoring relationships.

I admire Father Jenkins for taking a public stand to express his heartfelt apology. I’m convinced that God longs for more Jesus-followers to salt the earth with genuine contrition and courageous apology in the face of potential risk. Whether at an organizational level or in interpersonal relationships, may we courageously embrace God’s ways and radically demonstrate the power of contrition and apology.

photo or Mr. Rudd's public apology compliments of Flickr Photos

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