It’s So Hard to Say I’m Sorry


Se­re­na Wil­li­ams wan­ted an apo­lo­gy. The Ame­ri­can ten­nis star was being as­ses­sed co­de vio­la­ti­ons in the cham­pi­ons­hip match of the Uni­ted Sta­tes Open a week ago, and she was fu­rious with the chair um­pi­re, Car­los Ra­mos.

“You owe me an apo­lo­gy,” she de­man­ded. “Say it! Say you’re sorry.”

Plen­ty of fans si­ded with Ms. Wil­li­ams af­ter she went on to lo­se to Nao­mi Os­a­ka, but others de­fen­ded Mr. Ra­mos as a fair-min­ded of­fi­ci­al. It was Ms. Wil­li­ams, they in­sis­ted, who should apo­lo­gi­ze for mar­ring the tour­na­ment’s fi­nish.

In the end, the on­ly per­son to apo­lo­gi­ze was the one whom no one could find fault with.

“I know that ever­yo­ne was chee­ring for her,” Ms. Os­a­ka, who at 20 ye­ars old had just won her first Grand Slam tit­le, told the crowd af­ter­ward. “I’m sorry it had to end li­ke this.”

To so­me ob­ser­vers, that was the big­gest in­jus­ti­ce of the tour­na­ment. “It’s too bad that what should ha­ve be­en a mo­ment of joy and tri­umph for her was spoi­led by boo­ing in the au­di­ence and that she found it ne­cessa­ry to apo­lo­gi­ze for bea­ting the crowd fa­vo­ri­te,” Mar­ga­ret McGirr wro­te in a let­ter to The Ti­mes.

This pro­bab­ly didn’t sur­pri­se Mar­ga­ret Renkl, who has no­ted the dif­fi­cul­ty that peop­le ha­ve apo­lo­gi­zing even when pu­b­lic opi­ni­on turns against them. Loo­king at a few high-pro­fi­le ca­ses, li­ke what was wi­de­ly se­en as a ra­cist tweet by the ac­tress Ro­sean­ne Barr, “the­re is plen­ty to sug­gest that al­most no one in pu­b­lic life knows what it me­ans to be tru­ly re­mor­se­ful,” Ms. Renkl wro­te in The Ti­mes. “Or at least how to ex­press re­mor­se.”

But that is know­ledge that can be lear­ned. Ask an­yo­ne, li­ke Ms. Renkl, who is fa­mi­li­ar with what is of­ten cal­led “Ca­tho­lic guilt.”

“One of the most use­ful things Ca­tho­lic school taught me is the fun­da­men­tal struc­tu­re of apo­lo­gy,” she wro­te. And she tra­ces that struc­tu­re di­rect­ly to one pray­er, the Act of Cont­ri­ti­on, which be­gins: “O my God, I am hear­ti­ly sorry …”

By the time you reach the end of the pray­er, Ms. Renkl wro­te, you learn that a true apo­lo­gy in­clu­des ge­nui­ne re­mor­se, an ac­cep­tan­ce of con­se­quen­ces, and a re­so­lu­ti­on not to com­mit the of­fen­se again or to even put yours­elf in a po­si­ti­on whe­re you might.

The pray­er, she wro­te, is “a good ba­sic tem­pla­te for so­me­thing that no lon­ger seems ba­sic at all: kno­wing how to cle­an up a mess of your own ma­king.”

Of cour­se, not ever­yo­ne is in­cli­ned to look to ca­te­chism for gui­dance on cont­ri­ti­on, es­pe­cial­ly now. “God knows the world is still wait­ing for the Ca­tho­lic Church to apo­lo­gi­ze for so­me cri­mi­nal er­rors of its own,” Ms. Renkl wro­te.

But per­haps the­re is a me­thod of apo­lo­gy to be lear­ned from one of the world’s other gre­at re­li­gi­ons: soc­cer. If you wat­ched any of the World Cup this sum­mer, you most li­kely saw it, ma­ny ti­mes: play­ers who ha­ve fai­led at a goal-scoring op­por­tu­ni­ty, rai­sing their hands and clasping them to their heads. Stars do it. Teams do it in uni­son. Psy­cho­lo­gists and zoo­lo­gists ha­ve stu­di­ed the mo­ve, and they say it can con­vey dis­be­lief, or shame.

Or, li­ke the Act of Cont­ri­ti­on, good old-fa­shio­ned re­mor­se.

It si­gni­fies that “you know you mes­sed up,” said Jes­si­ca Tra­cy, a pro­fes­sor of psy­cho­lo­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bri­tish Co­lum­bia. “It’s go­ing to tell others, ‘I get it and I’m sorry, the­re­fo­re you don’t ha­ve to kick me out of the group, you don’t ha­ve to kill me.’ ”

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