When I was growing up, one of my favorite treats was to see a movie. This was before the internet, before VCRs, Netflix, YouTube, and so forth. To see a film, you had to go to the theater. At the time, Westerns were popular. And those starring John Wayne were among the best of the Westerns.
In 1949, Wayne starred as Cavalry Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles in the John Ford directed movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Early in the film, during a brief exchange with one of his soldiers, Wayne says to him, ”Never apologize, mister. It’s a sign of weakness.” (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (screenplay) , Laurence Stallings.) It’s one of the Captain’s favorite sayings. The line reflected a sentiment that many boys growing up admired, unfortunately, and felt that it taught them something about how to be a man.
Today, years after seeing the movie, I think that the inability to apologize when saying or doing something that offended another person is a sign of weakness. To admit a mistake is evidence of strength.
In the 1970 movie Love Story, the character Jennifer “Jenny” Cavilleri is played by Ali McGraw. She tells Oliver Barrett IV, the man she loves, played by Ryan O’Neal, that “love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” (Love Story (screenplay) , Erich Segal.) Here again, I have a problem with what is implied about the nature and purpose of apologies.
Jenny’s statement can be interpreted at least two ways. For instance, it could mean that if you love someone, you will never say or do anything that would require you to apologize to them, to have to tell them you are sorry. I feel reasonably confident that I have loved at least a few people in my life. Yet, there is not one of them of whom I can rightly claim that I did not at some time or other, do or say something that offended them and required an apology.
On the other hand, perhaps what Jenny means is that if someone you love offends you, they never have to tell you they’re sorry. You have forgiven them before they commit the offense. There have been occasions when someone I love has done or said something that hurt me. And rarely did I not feel that they owed me, if “owed” is the right word, an apology.
Recently, the media have reported the apologies of various men accused of inappropriate behavior, sexual misconduct, even sexual assault. I have read some of these statements of apology. They often start like this. “I’m sorry if I said or did anything that offended you, or to which you took offense….” This beginning leaves open the possibility that what the person making the apology said or did was not offensive, in and of itself. The suggestion is that while the person to whom the apology is being made took offense, other people might not have done so. People offering these kinds of apologies may not recognize what they are doing.
The best apology I’ve read doesn’t contain any of these words: apology, apologize, or sorry. I found it in chapter 14, “Sunday Bells,” of Heidi by the 19th-century Swiss author Johanna Spyri. The “apology” is given by Heidi’s grandfather to the pastor of the village of Dörfli. The pastor had come previously to visit the grandfather and pleaded with him, on Heidi’s behalf, to move to the town of Dörfli with the young girl and send her to school there. Heidi’s grandfather adamantly refused. And his manner was a bit rough. Subsequently, he changed his mind. He paid a visit to the pastor one Sunday after church. This is what he said.
I have come to ask you, pastor, to forget the words I spoke to you when you called on me, and to beg you not to owe me ill-will for having been so obstinately set against your well-meant advice. You were right, and I was wrong, but I have now made up my mind to follow your advice and to find a place for myself at Dörfli for the winter, for the child is not strong enough to stand the bitter cold up on the mountain. And if the people down here look askance at me, as at a person not to be trusted, I know it is my own fault, and you will, I am sure, not do so.Spyri, Johanna. Heidi (AmazonClassics Edition) (p. 160). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition.
Pay special attention to the wonderfully simple sentence, “You were right and I was wrong.” How easy it is to read it, how difficult it can be to say it. It takes a confident person to say this to another. And as I noted above, mark that the grandfather says none of the words typically associated with an apology.
It is best not to engage in behavior that requires an apology. However, it’s not possible to do that all of the time. We will fail. It is part of our being human. When we do, may we have the courage to tell the ones we have hurt, “You were right, and I was wrong.”
All the best,