Saturday, June 18, 2011

An apology need not be an admission of guilt

Billie, the nurse at my mother's retirement village, rang last night full of apologies. She had been so busy that day, so preoccupied with the fact that the whole place was being re-carpeted, that she had accidentally given my mother her evening medication at lunch time.

It would make little to no difference, she said, except that by the time she had realised her mistake it was too late to give my mother the extra Lasix.
‘It might be that your mother’s weight goes up overnight,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t make mistakes like this, not usually.’

We have needed to keep my mother's fluid intake down to prevent any swelling in her legs, a side effect of her heart failure. We monitor her fluid intake by weighing her daily.

Billie told me that by law she was obliged to inform me of her mistake, though probably in the scheme of things, one Lasix dose difference would not matter at all. Still she was obliged to tell me.

I felt sorry for Billie, having to apologise so profusely over some small mistake. It might have mattered were the medication of greater import, but one missed Lasix dose is not a drama.

I will visit my mother at lunch time today and check her weight. If it goes up beyond the desired weight of 56 kilos then I shall give her an extra Lasix tablet and all should be well.

Why am I writing this? What brings it to mind? The business of making mistakes, of having to apologise, of having to eat crow, eat humble pie, prostrate oneself at another’s feet. All these images come to mind, when I think of Billie's need to apologise.

I once failed to give way to a man who was coming through a roundabout on my right and he tail gated me to the next set of lights and then pulled up behind me. I watched as he got out of his car, road rage written all over his face. He strode towards me.

I wound my window down to the half way mark and as he began to speak – ‘What do you think you were doing? – I apologised.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t see you.’ My words took the wind from him. I could tell he could not go anywhere with my effusive and heartfelt apology. I had been in the wrong. I knew it. I was sorry.

It was almost as if this man had expected me to answer back, to accuse him of wrong doing or to otherwise defend myself in some way.

When I did not, when I simply offered my apology instead, he went back to his car and the drama came to an end.

So, too, this drama will come to an end.

I urged Billie not to worry about it. These things happen, I said.

She, too, seemed surprised. Perhaps she has had to do battle with families who go berserk when she or another staff member makes a mistake.

There are some who like nothing more than to see someone else make a mistake so as to justify their outrage, and to give them cause to feel hard done by.

Usually an apology from the other person when something goes wrong is enough for me. It gets me over any hurt or rage I might feel pretty quickly.

On the other side, I’ve been quick to apologise in my life time, even for things that were not my responsibility.

But an apology need not be an admission of guilt.

I think of it as the sort of apology the previous Prime Minister of this country once made to our indigenous people, not an apology that said I’m sorry for what I have done wrong. Our Prime Minister was not even alive when our British ancestors breached these shores and began the dreadful process of disenfranchising Australia's native people and took their land from them. No, the apology was more one of regret.

I regret that you have suffered in this way. I am sorry to hear and to know that your ancestors were forced to experience such pain and suffering and today you bear the consequences.

Though an apology can have other meanings, too.

The joke in this household is that I will sometimes say the words, ‘I’m sorry about that’, as an expression meaning to ‘get over it’: there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so you will need to grin and bear it. A sort of ‘I’m sorry about that’ in place of I couldn’t care less. My apology, my pseudo-apology will be about all anyone can expect.

I do not remember the day when my excessive tendency towards apologising for things I did not do turned into this other form of apology, an apology that implies now ‘fuck off’ as my husband sometimes complains.

Perhaps the day came when I had had enough of cosseting others. I imagine it has to do with my writing life. The fact these days that I will put my writing ahead of most things, of many things, though not all things, and if anything gets in the way and must be dismissed I might be sorry about that, too, the inconvenience or pain it might cause usually those nearest and dearest to me. But that is as far as I will go.

I've been reading Bernard Schlink's Guilt about the Past and he has a differnt take on the politics of saying sorry: "No one can step in as a replacement for the victim to offer forgiveness; forgiveness granted by someone other than the victim is presumptuous.'

I'm inclined to agree with Schlink, but here we get into the muddy waters of apology and forgiveness. I dare not even go there.

Who's to forgive my mother's nurse here - me or my mother? I suppose it all comes down to who's been wronged and to what degree and how much damage is done.
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