One of my first legal clients gave me the most important professional advice I have ever received. In fact, it has turned out to be some of the most important advice about life there is! This young salesman was an astonishing ball of energy, so wound up that he couldn’t sit down so he spent our meetings stalking around my office, looking out windows, reading my diplomas, picking up and studying tchotchkes from my desk, and talking stream-of-consciousness.
I don’t remember his name or much else about him, but one moment remains vivid in my mind. He was establishing a manufacturer’s rep that sold some sort of industrial equipment, and as was my custom I asked him to tell me more about the business, his career, and his dreams. He was in the process of doing that when he paused mid-sentence, looked at me, and said, “When I get a new client, I pray something goes wrong. Do you know why?” Of course, I had no clue. He said, “When something goes wrong, I get to apologize. Then I get to rush in and fix it. That hooks them! I’ve got a client for life.”
I was just starting to work with clients at the time, so what he said that day made a big impression. I began to notice who apologized and who didn’t, and I began to work on establishing a habit of always apologizing myself. I was astonished to realize how difficult developing an apology habit actually is! But I kept at it. I wasn’t representing a manufacturer that had goofed up a client’s order, but there were times when I had done less than my best. It doesn’t matter whether people are angry, or whether they even know you’ve slipped up: coming right out and saying you are sorry can be hard to do at first. But the habit became so ingrained in me that it was only after Thomas had given me our topic for this week that I first even thought about it enough to realize that my apology habit seems never to have caused me any problems at all. In fact, it seems to have been a significant contributor to my professional success. I also think now that it helped to lay the groundwork for my later spiritual life.
Developing a strong apology habit is a wonderful spiritual exercise!
Apologizing requires you to confront your ego, and each time you beat it you soften it more until your ego seems almost to give up trying. Here is why:
And in your personal life, apologizing feels even riskier! Will your spouse forgive you, or will s/he feel betrayed? Is it better to bury your mistakes so they won’t put your personal relationships at risk?
As is true of developing a gratitude practice, apologizing goes against our ego-based and self-protective grain. And the wonderful thing about that is the fact that our repeatedly beating down our small-minded human tendencies makes it easier for us to eventually vanquish them. Remember, too, that apology is the flip side of forgiveness, and forgiveness is a core teaching of Jesus. It’s the prelude to learning more perfect love! In fact, your apology is a spiritual gift to the person you have wronged, because it then confers the greater opportunity to learn and apply ever better forgiveness.
I am coming to realize that maintaining a strong apology habit may be just as important to our spiritual development as is maintaining an attitude of gratitude.
Here is how you can best begin to make apologizing a central part of your life:
What did Jesus say about apologizing? As is true of gratitude, apologizing is not specifically addressed in the Gospel words that have come down to us, but as is true of gratitude it is certainly implied. Indeed, both gratitude and contrition are at the core of everything that Jesus taught. Take, for example, The Lord’s Prayer, which is the way Jesus suggests that we communicate with God. He urges us to say:
“Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (MT 6:9-13).
I would argue that nearly every word of The Lord’s Prayer is an expression of gratitude based in the trusting certainty that God will continue to supply all our needs. And what is “forgive us our debts”? It’s an apology in all but name. Please note in particular how relationship-based this whole prayer is! Forgive us as we forgive others. Your will be done as our earthly needs are supplied. We ask not just that you avoid tempting us, but also that you let nothing else tempt us. Just as is true of gratitude and apologizing, The Lord’s Prayer is all about building and strengthening this essential relationship.
There is a Gospel passage, too, where the notion of apologizing and thereby being reconciled with others is expressed explicitly. Jesus said, “if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison” (MT 5:23-25).
We cannot know what more Jesus might have said that was not remembered and passed down for the couple of generations before His words were first committed to writing. My hunch is that He may well have talked about both expressing gratitude and apologizing, since these attitudes seem to be so foundational to everything He said that has come down to us. It may also be that in the younger times in which He lived, people were less ego-driven than moderns are, and were both more grateful and more careful about healing their relationships than we are now.
Gratitude and apologizing are core relationship elements that assist in the work of breaking down the boundaries between ourselves and other people.
The Gospel teachings of Jesus are a mechanism for rapid spiritual growth, but the fact that they have been largely ignored for the past two thousand years suggests that they are not an easy and automatic machine. Rather, they are more like a seed. And Jesus told us that explicitly! He said of His teachings, “Behold, the sower went out to sow; as he was sowing, some seed fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on the rocky ground where it did not have much soil; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of soil. And after the sun had risen, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop. Other seeds fell into the good soil, and as they grew and increased, they yielded a crop and produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” (MK 4:3-8).
Until we have prepared our minds by developing practices of gratitude and apologizing to others – two habits that weaken our egos and strengthen our relationships with other people – we are offering to the seed of the Lord’s perfect teachings mostly stony and unproductive soil.