Welcome to another day to practice grace

by Kristin on April 5, 2009

in Love, family & community

Photo by D’Arcy Norman

Saying “I’m sorry” has always been really difficult for me.

Even when I was a little girl—maybe 10 or 12—it was hard. I remember my mom coming into my room, after we had gotten into some sort of argument. She would sit on my bed, where I had most likely been crying, and tell me she was sorry.

We both felt terrible and both had reason to say “I’m sorry,” but it seemed almost impossible for me. Even if I was determined to say it, and willed myself to say it, the words always seemed to get stuck when I opened my mouth.

I’ve spent many years thinking about that, and trying to dig to the core of whatever makes me stubborn in that way. Thankfully, I’ve made a lot of progress, but those two words have never just rolled off my tongue.

Anyone who has gone through a divorce can probably attest to the heaps of wrongs that gradually pile up like garbage at a dump. The little hurts and angers, when collected over time, become mountains.

Saying “I’m sorry”—if you can even muster up the courage to step out in front of your own pain and say it with sincerity—seems like such a small thing in the face of such an overwhelming mess. It feels like you’ve taken just a few steps up that huge mountain of trash, and then, exhausted, set up camp for the night. There’s so far to go, it’s easy to feel defeated and hopeless before you even begin.

Saying “I’m sorry” is more than a one-time verbal act

Gradually, since my divorce, I’ve learned an amazing thing—several amazing things, actually, but here’s what I learned about healing: The expression of sorrow and regret and forgiveness can’t just be spoken in words, in a single moment. It’s a process, that must be lived out in small actions over a great stretch of time. For some people, that might seem more daunting, but for me, it feels more doable—and more real.

Yesterday was the sort of day filled with grace and forgiveness, even though no one said “I’m sorry.” There were no tense or awkward moments, or verbal acceptances of apologies. There was just life, being lived in a simple and harmonious way—first with my ex-husband in the morning, and then with Jason’s ex-wife that afternoon.

At 9 a.m., S had her first soccer game, which was a big, exciting deal for all of us (if you missed it last month, check out the post Parenting is not a spectator sport). The girls were with their “other parents” this weekend, so just Jason and I (and Maeve the pup) headed over to the soccer field.

We were a bit scattered, and hadn’t thought to bring a blanket or chairs; of course, the field they were playing on was one without bleachers. Q, our middle daughter, was sitting on a big blanket with her dad and stepmom, and was eager to bond with our new dog. My ex invited us to share their blanket, and we spent the hour together, chatting, doting on Maeve, cheering on S’s team, and just sitting comfortably together in the morning sunshine.

That’s what forgiveness looks like, and feels like.

Later, after a trip to the gym and some lunch, Jason and I went to the home of his ex-wife R, her partner B, and their baby N. We had been invited to celebrate N’s first birthday. (If you’re confused about our friendship with R and B, dig back in the archives and read A road trip with my husband’s ex-wife.)

It was a gorgeous day, and the party was in the yard. We sat and talked in the afternoon sunshine, drinking wine. We showered the birthday boy with attention, and watched him open presents. Our little Maeve was introduced to R & B’s enormous beast of a dog, the two of them creating a very entertaining sight. Then everyone ate cake and, as the late afternoon sun drooped, causing us to reach for our sweaters, we headed for home.

That’s what forgiveness looks like, and feels like. Cake and laughter and conversation and a baby to celebrate.

And I’m so glad I’m learning about that other side of forgiveness—the inch by inch, day by day side. I’m not suggesting that the words “I’m sorry” aren’t incredibly important. I’m just starting to think that saying those two words, and then walking away like everything’s all better, generally doesn’t cut it on its own.

That quick-fix approach won’t take us nearly as far up the mountain of hurt and anger—the one that we desperately need to get over if we’re to find a land of grace.

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  • Trina

    Great connection: “Living ‘I’m sorry’ day by day = living in grace” Something to strive for in many facets of life. What a breath of fresh air to hear of this success surrounding ex’s.

  • http://www.intersectedblog.com Jamie

    You know, “I’m sorry” has always seemed a bit contrived and overused to me. Like if you say it, you’re owed forgiveness. Or, if someone says it to you, you are indebted to them your forgiveness.

    But, as you wrote so beautifully here, that’s not the case. And, sometimes sorry isn’t necessary – but just being present is what it takes.

    I loved this post and, like you, I’m more comforted by the day to day process of forgiveness than the quick fix of “I’m sorry.”

  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    you may be the only person on the face of the earth who doesn’t think it strange that when a massive ice storm forced us out of our house in december 2007, the first person to call was my ex husband – and the place we ended up – me, my husband and our three kids – was his place. I hate to call him my “ex” though, as he is, in fact, a dear friend. there has been forgiveness in action for 10 years – though maybe not one apology. when lived out, “sorry” I suppose can become extraneous or irrelevant. your writing is so insightful, so bold. i appreciate it so much.

  • Arathi

    Great post, Kristin and so true…. by themselves the words are just that — words.

  • Natalie

    Great post, Kristin. But I want to put in a plug for the words. They may be neither necessary nor sufficient, but it can be so good to hear that the other party is sorry that they wronged you — to hear the acknowledgment that there was a wrong and a responsible party. I’m talking a simple “I’m sorry,” not an “I’m sorry you were hurt,” or “I’m sorry that happened,” neither of which are satisfying in any way. But the better and harder part is living the forgiveness, you’re right about that.

  • http://www.ashleygraceless.com Ashley

    It was so refreshing to hear that somebody else has a hard time saying “I’m sorry.” I am hopelessly stubborn and it really takes me a long time to say it. What’s worse is I know it shouldn’t, and that piles on self-resentment that I slowly have to chip away at before I can finally come out and admit I was wrong.

    I also really like your idea of forgiveness as a process instead of just words. What a great post.

  • elizabeth linder

    Lovely- forgiveness, just like love requires action for it’s authenticity. Both are continuous, and you much choose them. What a wonderful post!

  • http://pmerrill.com/ paul merrill

    Your grace pours out from this post.

    Thanks for your vulnerability. That will help many who read this to move toward healing in their own lives and relationships.

  • http://www.howtomatter.com Jeb Dickerson

    Lip service is never enough KT…no matter the situation. Authenticity demands…well…authenticity. For the record, that’s one of the things lacking in many ‘useful’ blogs. :)

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Trina, I guess I connect this sort of forgiveness to grace, because I realize it isn’t the sort of thing we’re naturally inclined to do, as human beings. Personally, I believe it’s only with the help of some divine grace that forgiveness and reconciliation can truly happen in this world.

    Jamie, I think there’s a lot of baggage surrounding “I’m sorry,” and how we were raised to practice those words (or not). So many kids are forced by their parents to apologize for things, making it a humiliating experience enacted for the wrong reasons (not because of a sorry heart, but because of embarrassed parents). Other kids never see the adults in their lives practicing apologies, forgiveness, and the whole “kiss and make up” scene. And then we live in a culture that supports never admitting you are wrong, no matter what, especially if you’re someone with power (like the president we recently had for eight years). It’s no wonder that “I’m sorry” often ends up feeling contrived, is it?

    jenx67, you’re right—I don’t think that’s strange at all! It’s beautiful, and it reminds us that although the world (and the human beings in the world) *tend* to behave in certain ways in certain situations, anything is possible—even exes taking shelter from storms together, or attending one another’s weddings. I think there’s a tremendous amount of hope in that. “Forgiveness in action for 10 years.” I love that.

    Arathi, thanks! We love to say “actions speak louder than words,” and we love to teach our children that. But we so often fall back on the “right words” and manners, because the actions are work!

    Natalie, I’m glad you’re providing some balance here. :) I agree—”it can be so good to hear that the other party is sorry that they wronged you.” Not good in a “I was right, you were wrong” sort of way, but in the way that clears a path for healing. Then we have to walk down that path, so to speak, rather than abandon it.

    Ashley, it’s so refreshing for *me* to hear that someone else has a hard time saying “I’m sorry.” :) Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in that. I experience that whole “self resentment” piece that you bring up, too. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? Let me know if you gain any insight on how to break it.

    Elizabeth, what a great way to look at forgiveness—like love. The words do matter, and we need to hear them (Jason and I tell each other we love each other all the time), but they are hollow without actions to fill them. Thanks for sharing that parallel!

    Paul, vulnerability is never fun, is it? And I always worry that being vulnerable equates to being a downer. But at some point I realized how therapeutic it was for me to hear other people’s stories of struggle and progress, and how much hope those stories gave me. I can’t think of a better reason to share what I’ve worked through and learned.

    Jeb, I don’t imagine you’re much of a “lip service” kind of guy, judging from the authenticity of your own blog. :) Thanks for all of your encouragement, and for sharing your own authentic stories.

  • http://www.larkinsplace.com Amy

    When Mr. Ex apologized for his bad behavior and cheating it was all I wanted to hear and made moving along so much easier. He meant it and it healed my heart somewhat. The other party to the affair – I asked for an apology from her and she refused and still hasn’t done it. I realized a few years ago that it wasn’t my job to “force” an apology and frankly I didn’t need or want it. She is living her own creation of a life based upon destroying mine and I need to pray for her and pray for my own grace and ability to forgive.

  • GettingThere

    Perhaps the sincere words, “I’m sorry” open the door to the action and the healing, however minor or major. If someone is going to say the words but not mean it, I don’t want them to say it. But if they are sorry, it helps me to start the process of getting beyond it even though I will get there eventually either way. For myself, I can be sorry, but can’t overcome the other emotions right away to express it. I do try to tell my kids I’m sorry or I’m wrong when I need to. I think it’s healing and a bridge.

  • http://www.mckinneyoatescereal.wordpress.com Marie

    I feel like a simple “Amen” would suffice for this post. It’s great.

    With the “hard to say sorry thing”, I find that I have a hard time trusting people that say sorry too quickly because I’m wondering “Do you realize that those words mean that actions are going to have to change to make that “I’m sorry” complete? Do you realize how hard that’s going to be?” I like it when people struggle because that sends the message, to me, that they’re taking it seriously.

    Your family’s story is just beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Amy, that’s the key to verbal apologies—you have to know the other person means it, the way you did with your ex. And the other key, as you point out, is to never force or demand an apology. The way you’ve come to deal with “the other party to the affair” sounds very wise and healthy. Isn’t it amazing how much we can learn when we go through something painful and difficult?

    GettingThere, I can completely relate to this: “I can be sorry, but can’t overcome the other emotions right away to express it.” It’s not that I don’t feel sincerely sorry in these situations—it’s just that expressing it is difficult. I also like your thought that the words “I’m sorry” open the door to action and healing. It’s like a two-stage process, not an either-or thing.

    Marie, your sense about the actions making the words complete reminds me of the interactions I often have with one of my daughters. She does say “I’m sorry,” but it tends to be in a rather snotty way, which always makes me say “Don’t say you’re sorry, act like you’re sorry.” What you say about the struggle being a good sign is right on. I’d rather know that she’s feeling torn and confused than hear her apologize in a disingenuous way. (Btw, thanks for your kind words about my family and this post!)

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