When I was a child, if my siblings and I got into any kind of a spat, our mother forced us to say we were sorry, and to solemnly shake hands on it. It was a nice idea, but it was also pro forma, because we had to say it before we felt it. I remember the first time I had to apologize, when I had bitten my sister’s stomach. She ran toward me in a little summer outfit and a bared midriff and I was two years old and I just spontaneously stepped forward and bit her stomach, which was where I reached her at my diminutive height. It was soft and satisfying to sink my teeth into it, for that brief and shining moment.
Then of course she screamed and ratted me out to our mother. She had every right to. One cannot, after all, just go around biting people. Mom was shocked and disappointed. She kept trying to get me to justify it, but I didn’t have enough vocabulary to mount a full defense. I still remember her face coming down to my level as she squatted on her haunches and glared at me wrathfully. Why? Why had I done this terrible thing, and let the whole family down? It wasn’t nice! In my mind, I was thinking that my sister had run right up to me and her stomach was right there and eminently biteable, from my perspective. That it might hurt her was not on my radar.
I didn’t plan to bite. I didn’t even know I wanted to bite. I simply bit spontaneously with no malice aforethought. Truth be told, I was not fully repentant when I shook her hand and proffered the family apology. I was sad to see her teary eyes, and the red mark on her belly, because I loved her. I was almost able to fathom that I had caused this, but I also knew I hadn’t really meant it, so did I really need to be sorry? I just didn’t have the brain development to parse that out. I didn’t have a moral compass to guide me. And I couldn’t fully sympathize with her feelings, when my own were so strong.
Back to apologies. In the court system, I see many cases where crime victims hope and pray that the perpetrator will be sorry, and say he is sorry, and maybe read an eloquent apology as part of sentencing. When it doesn’t happen, it can add pain to what is already so painful. But when it does happen, there is often a sense of disappointment. Okay, so you are sorry now. So what? Let’s say you truly regret it. You long, just as much as we do, to go back in time, and change the outcome. Well, you can’t. You have to live with the consequences, and we have to live with the consequences. And no apology, pro forma, forced, suggested by defense counsel, or heartfelt and sincere, will bring the victim back to whole. So what good is it, in the end? Whatever good it is, it is never good enough.
Why start this post with an oft-repeated childhood story? Because I do believe than many repeat offenders function at the level I functioned at when I was two. They often look as bewildered as anyone else in the courtroom when they hear the evidence of their own conduct. I don’t believe they sit around planning out the violent acts they end up committing. I think in many cases, circumstances combine when they are at a weak moment, and as they have no impulse control, they just strike out. If they end up getting caught and convicted, then they pay the legal consequences, and in some cases, have to draft with the help of a lawyer some kind of half-assed gee I’m so sorry letter. And those letters cannot take away the anger and disappointment and loss that the victims feel about the crime itself.
And yet, the special sadness I see in the victims when no remorse is even pretended, when the perpetrator clearly exhibits that he really doesn’t care about what harm he caused, lets me know that any sort of apology is still better than nothing. Any bit of comfort, any shred of remorse, anything to react to or hear, even to dismiss in disdain, is better than nothing. Even suspecting that the perpetrator is crying crocodile tears and reading a letter their lawyer may have drafted is better than watching him smirk defiantly and show no concern at all. And I am sorry to say I have seen that happen.
Looking back from this perspective, I start to think that maybe our mom was right in making us shake hands, say were were sorry, and make up, even before our hearts were fully in it.