A couple of years ago, I wrote a column (“If you’re going to apologize, apologize!” August 28, 2020) in which I contrasted a perfect apology I had been told about with non-apology apologies; you know, the guilt-shifting apology, as it’s called in the literature, as well as the side-stepping, if, explanatory, justifying, and phantom apologies.
Recently, I experienced and read about two other non-apology apologies; one I’ll call the proxy apology and the other the missing apology. I’m sure you’ve all experienced the first where an apology is offered to take the place of doing what really should be done (hence “proxy,” since the apology is standing in for something else). This is often used by customer service representatives whom we call because we have a problem that requires help. However, instead of help, sometimes all we get is an apology that the problem exists: “We’re so sorry, Mr. Kaplan, that you’ve been inconvenienced,” they say more than once, “and we apologize to you for that.” Great, but my computer or cable service still doesn’t work.
In the missing apology, wrongdoers acknowledge they acted badly but refuse to use the word “apologize.” For example, in the early 20th century a California town improperly and discriminatorily condemned property owned by a Black family. When the matter was finally settled 96 years later, the town issued a “statement of acknowledgment” that condemned the racism of its earlier actions. It refused to apologize, however, because that could increase the risk of litigation. The great-great-grandson of the owners of the property, who said, “I think an apology would be the least they can do,” was wrong. The town managed to do less.
Shortly after my earlier apology column appeared, I heard a dazzling Zoom lecture by Martha Minow, a law professor and former dean of Harvard Law School, on “When Should Law Forgive? Legal, Social and Religious Perspectives.” In it she also discussed apologies in the context of forgiveness, because those two concepts often are opposite sides of the same coin; a person commits a wrong which hurts someone else, realizes their error, apologizes (side one) and is forgiven (side two). This is highlighted by the first dictionary definition of forgiveness, “to cease to feel resentment against an offender,” which often requires an apology to mollify the offended and smooth the way toward reconciliation.
But there’s also a second definition of forgiveness: “to grant relief from payment of a debt.” No wrongdoing, no offender, and thus no need for an apology; just a debt that the creditor forgives.
After hearing the lecture, I had an urge to share my apology column with Dean Minow. Plus, I had a forgiveness story I thought might interest her. However, while I had once met her briefly at a shiva call, I didn’t really know her. Upon reflection, though, I thought I might have enough of a connection to send her an email. When my friend Barry, who was sitting shiva, introduced us by telling me her name, he added, “So what can you tell me about her?” I needed only a moment to say “vast wasteland.” She literally gasped and said “you and Barry are the only two people who’ve made that connection immediately upon meeting me in many years.” (If you don’t get the reference, LMGTFY.) So I emailed her my column (it turned out she did remember me and very graciously called the column “a winner”), and told her the following story.
I once represented a client who was trying to collect a $5 million judgment against a wealthy judgment debtor who had signed a personal guaranty on an unpaid business loan. My firm didn’t know the client well, since he had been referred to us by his personal attorney, who coordinated his collection efforts. One day, while discussing strategy with the referring attorney — I wanted to better understand the client’s extremely aggressive collection position — my colleague told me the following story. (Yes, a story within a story.)
Our client, who purchased debt as a business, once acquired a mortgage bundle from Fannie Mae. One particular mortgage caught his eye; it was quite small compared to most in the bundle, and rigorously kept up to date. Upon investigation, he discovered the mortgagor was a woman who was a waitress in a local town diner. Curious about her, he stopped off at the diner one day, sat at her table, and took the opportunity to chat with her. He learned she was a single mom working two jobs in order to support two kids and put them through college, with no help from a deadbeat ex-husband.
She impressed him; he found her truthful, hard-working, and able to keep her head above water against long odds. After he left, the waitress discovered he was not only a nosy customer but also a very good tipper — he left the original mortgage, stamped “paid in full,” under his coffee cup. “He can be very generous and forgiving — if it’s called for,” the attorney told me. I understood the message: not one inch for the over-entitled defendant in our case.
As I wrote in my original column, not all apologies are the same. Unsurprising, of course; just look at the different types of charity in Maimonides’ eight-step tzedakah ladder. The first seven rungs range from giving charity begrudgingly to charity with both anonymous givers and recipients. And the eighth and highest level actually is outside the charity box; it happens by providing someone struggling with a gift, a loan, or, better yet, a job, so charity will not be needed.
So too there are levels of apologies. Even non-apology apologies are better than none; at least the offender recognizes the need to acknowledge their offense in some manner. (See “Is a Grudging Apology Better Than Nothing?” in this past Monday’s New York Times.) Sincere apologies that truly go a long way toward healing and renewed friendships are higher up on the ladder.
As for forgiveness, Jewish law teaches that mechilah, as forgiveness is known in Jewish tradition, should be granted if an apology is sincere and the offender has corrected the wrong. Yet a ladder exists there as well. A lower level of forgiveness can be like parole, where the wrong still exists in the mind of the person who is offended, though the resulting resentment is lessened or eliminated. Or it can be like a pardon, with the wrong erased and the relationship renewed and reinvigorated.
And perhaps there is even a higher level, where, like with forgiveness of a debt, no apology is needed; the wrong is forgiven purely out of the goodness of the injured person’s heart. Such forgiveness is rare and difficult, but, as John Lennon sang so sweetly, let’s imagine and be dreamers. Let’s imagine that every once in a while someone who had been hurt forgave without being asked, without receiving an apology; imagine forgiveness arising solely out of a desire to resume a friendship with someone who hurt us.
Let’s be dreamers and imagine that if we leave overly generous forgiveness tips under our offenders’ coffee cups, those picking up the tip will be inspired to act in ways where there would be no need for them to apologize or for us to forgive.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.