Baby boomer Bob Brody of New York City is not just an essayist; professionally he is a public relations executive. And privately? Well, he has decided to do a little public relations about his personal life too. You see, he has begun to think back about his childhood, and all the other kids he offended, and he has decided to finally offer them what he should have given them a long time ago: The Big Sorry.
Before this new year goes too far, before I forget and before I lose my nerve, let me check this item off my to-do list and just say what I have to say:
That’s right. I’m hereby officially apologizing to everyone I ever wronged as a boy. It’s a long list, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
To begin, I never apologized to that kid in the fifth grade I called fat, nor to all the Hebrew-school teachers in whose classes I seldom paid attention, nor to my sister for teasing her too much. So please let me do so now.
At age 15, while on duty as a salesman for a record retailer in a shopping mall, I regularly stole audiocassettes. The store detective told me he dubbed the thief “the phantom” and swore he would catch him in the act. Never happened.
Sorry about that.
I especially need to apologize to Larry, a kid a year older than I who lived in a house across the street from ours. One day some of us boys were roughhousing on our lawn, just rolling around in the grass and jostling each other. There lay Larry laughing and clearly enjoying the tussle with me standing over him. Then, for reasons I’ll never understand, I kicked him in the face.
Larry clutched his jaw and howled in pain and shock and rolled from side to side. He ran home screaming. As it turned out, I had knocked out some of his teeth, and from then on he had to wear dentures.
As far as I can recall, Larry never told anyone. If he had, surely his parents would have talked to mine, and insisted we redress this grievance and pay his dental bills. But no. The incident remained our secret. Until now.
So I’m sorry, Larry. Sorrier than I can ever say. I never meant to hurt you. We were only playing, after all. Maybe you already know that. Still, I have no explanation and certainly no excuse.
Oh, I could go on about all the sins I committed as a youth. Throwing snowballs at cars and buses and trucks driving through the street, aiming at the windshields. Making prank phone calls to strangers to ask, “Is your refrigerator running? Maybe you better chase after it.” Talking with my sister about my mother behind her back while in the same room because my mother is deaf and would never be the wiser. But the rap sheet would get encyclopedic.
The early part of a new year is as good a time as any for all of us who have any apologizing to do to clear our consciences and start fresh.
Of course, if I really meant business here, I would go one by one contacting anyone in my distant past to whom I owe an apology, rather than apologize en masse. The Big Sorry, I would call this personal campaign. But I have a day job, and it would take years.
If my youth proved unapologetic, though, my life as an adult has turned out to be anything but. Once I got married and we had children and I had to earn a living, I learned to apologize frequently. As a result, I’m what you might call an apologist— except I do it for myself rather than, say, Big Tobacco or, for that matter, Congress. I would estimate, for example, that I’ve spent roughly half our marriage apologizing to my wife.
So accustomed am I to apologizing as an adult that somewhere along the line I developed the habit of apologizing in advance. I’ll start a sentence with, “Sorry if this offends anyone, but . . . ” or, “Forgive me if I’m being too negative here, but . . . ” Apologizing preemptively eliminates the pressure to apologize after the fact.
The reason why I’m now looking to make amends has mainly to do with guilt. Guilt, despite its bad name, is actually good. Guilt is motivational. Guilt calls you out. Without guilt we might never feel sorry about anything, or even show up at our jobs. You could do a lot worse than to live a life governed by guilt. So feel free to consider me guilty as charged.
Shame and regret over wrongdoing can be highly instructive. You need the whole package in order to tender a heartfelt and full-blooded apology.
That’s why I never quite understood the rationale for Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Unlike some Jews, I believe setting aside a single day for penance is grossly insufficient. Who can possibly pack all the remorse we feel into only 24 hours? No, I believe in seeking redemption year-round.
And for this, by the way, I make no apology.
Bob Brody has an upcoming memoir, “Playing Catch With Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes Of Age.”