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22 November 2013

When sorry matters

When sorry matters

Have you said ‘sorry’ recently, or been apologised to? What was the context? You may have said ‘sorry’ quickly after bumping into someone, or for being late. Or you may have had to apologise for something you said or did which caused offence or harm.

Two public apologies caught my attention this week. When news broke of the sixth cyclist to be killed on the capital’s roads in a two-week period there was a call on the Mayor of London to apologise. London Assembly members called for Boris Johnson to apologise to Londoners for failing them with a poor cycling policy. The verbal and sincere expressions of regret and condolences for families who had lost loved ones was notable. The calls continued for more to be done to prevent further loss of life on the busy city roads.

The second apology was from the former Co-op Bank chairman, Rev Paul Flowers, who was arrested in connection with a drugs-related investigation.  He said: "This year has been incredibly difficult, with a death in the family and the pressures of my role with the Co-operative Bank. At the lowest point in this terrible period, I did things that were stupid and wrong. I am sorry for this, and I am seeking professional help, and apologise to all I have hurt or failed by my actions."

According to my trusted online dictionary, ‘sorry’ is defined as feeling regret, sympathy or pity.  Sorry is at best an acknowledgement of an action or activity that was inappropriate, but reflecting on the crop of apologies that punctuated my week, I’m wondering if sorry needs to mean more.

Saying sorry can seem like a small thing, but saying it at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way can often take the edge off an otherwise damaging or tragic experience.  That said, sometimes simply saying sorry doesn’t seem quite enough.  When a package I was expecting wasn’t delivered, the courier apologised for the inconvenience but I still didn’t have my delivery.  And when I stood with a friend at the open grave of her father, I heard people say ‘so sorry for your loss’ but it didn’t take away her pain or grief.

Whether an apology is offered for a re-bookable delivery, for inappropriate or illegal behaviour, or indeed the tragic loss of life, each context seems to need the apology to be experienced by the recipient(s).

I think this is what the Psalmist was demonstrating a willingness to do when he said in Psalm 38:18: “I confess my sins, I am deeply sorry for what I have done.”  As a favoured son, a father, and a famous king, David said sorry many times, publicly and privately, and went on to show it with his actions.

To say sorry may be my choice of words in a given situation, but to be sorry requires the recipient to feel my regret, sympathy or pity in that situation, whether I am at fault or responsible, or not. The word sorry without action is not true repentance.

If saying sorry can be the first step to clearing the air of an offense or failure, then perhaps being sorry can be the next step towards finding a solution, even though that may take time.  Saying sorry matters, not just when it is said or how, but when it is felt.

Rev Katei Kirby is head of operations at Ruach City Church @kateikirby