The Marginalian
The Marginalian

How to Apologize: Reflections on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Paradox of Doing the Right Thing

“An honorable human relationship… in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,'” Adrienne Rich wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”

And yet if the two pillars of friendship and loving relation are truth and tenderness, as Emerson believed, something terrible and irreconcilable happens when the truth itself is untender — it becomes impossible to discern the honorable thing to do, the loving thing to do, the correct shape of loyalty. Cornered between two imperfect options, one is forced to weigh the agony of hurting a beloved soul against the agony of duplicity, that pernicious poison of trust — a cruel reminder of how much pain human beings can inflict in just trying to be good, how altogether difficult it is to be a human being in tender and trusting relation to other human beings in a world rife with paradoxes, moral ambiguities, and impossible choices.

Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

To tell the truth despite its untenderness — “it is important to do this,” Adrienne Rich reminds us, “because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us” — is to be savaged by the unequaled soul-ache of having caused hurt while trying to do the right thing.

In the wake of it, trembling with desire for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, one longs for an apology so vast and powerful as to subsume the impossibility of the choice — an apology grand enough to allay all the vulnerabilities of being human, fallible, and famished for connection.

That longing comes alive in a consolation of a poem by Ellen Bass:

by Ellen Bass

Cook a large fish — choose one with many bones, a skeleton
you will need skill to expose, maybe the flying
silver carp that’s invaded the Great Lakes, tumbling
the others into oblivion. If you don’t live
near a lake, you’ll have to travel.
Walking is best and shows you mean it,
but you could take a train and let yourself
be soothed by the rocking
on the rails. It’s permitted
to receive solace for whatever you did
or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful
human. When my mother was in the hospital,
my daughter and I had to clear out the home
she wouldn’t return to. Then she recovered
and asked, incredulous,
How could you have thrown out all my shoes?
So you’ll need a boat. You could rent or buy,
but, for the sake of repairing the world,
build your own. Thin strips
of Western red cedar are perfect,
but don’t cut a tree. There’ll be
a demolished barn or downed trunk
if you venture further.
And someone will have a mill.
And someone will loan you tools.
The perfume of sawdust and the curls
that fall from your plane
will sweeten the hours. Each night
we dream thirty-six billion dreams. In one night
we could dream back everything lost.
So grill the pale flesh.
Unharness yourself from your weary stories.
Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.
There is much to fear as a creature
caught in time, but this
is safe. You need no defense. This
is just another way to know
you are alive.

Couple with Maimonides’s framework of repentance, repair, and what true forgiveness takes, then revisit Ellen Bass’s perspectival poem “The Big Picture.”

“How to Apologize” originally appeared in The New Yorker and is published here with the poet’s permission.

Published November 28, 2023




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