Apology and Compassion

Recently, I had a big fight – verbal, not physical – with a relative. I thought he was treating me badly. He’d been irritating me for a while but I hadn’t said anything about it. Finally, my emotional dam burst. I blew my top and he felt the force of my pent up anger. The anger was sparked by what I saw as his bad behavior, and in retrospect, I realized some of it was “extra” anger I happened to have on tap from other felt injuries, unrelated to him. When the dust settled a bit, he told me how painful the experience was for him, that my angry words hurt him deeply. At first, I couldn’t really take in what he was saying. I felt so strongly that my outburst was justified. In my mind, I reviewed all the ways he had injured me. I felt I had a right to be angry and to say something. Still, despite my self-righteousness, I began to recognize that I had in fact wounded my relative. Maybe I should apologize.

But wouldn’t an apology excuse what he did? Wouldn’t apologizing be like saying I never had a good reason to feel hurt, to feel angry, or to say anything about it? Wouldn’t I be encouraging his offensive behavior, saying it was really okay? If I was right about how he had mis-treated me (and of course I was right!), then his pain was his problem, wasn’t it? On reflection, I realized both sides of this paradox could be true without canceling each other out. Yes, I felt injured, I felt upset and angry, and I wanted to say something. And yes, I had hurt my relative. But I saw I needed to make space for both these realities and for the dynamic tension between them.

I had two challenges. First, I needed to find a way to put my own felt injury aside without pretending it wasn’t there or wasn’t real in order to allow compassion for my relative to arise. I needed to acknowledge his suffering and my part in causing it. No matter the reason or circumstances, I had caused him pain. It didn’t matter whether my anger was justified or not. It didn’t matter what he’d done. I needed to apologize. More important, as I really connected with his suffering and could feel real compassion, I wanted to apologize. Second, I needed to learn how to process hurt and angry feelings more skillfully, both to take care of myself and others with whom I’m in relationship. When someone says something to me or about me that hurts, it’s either true or not. If it’s true, this person is my teacher. If it’s not, there doesn’t have to be a problem. If my reaction is anger, then that anger is purely mine. This part of the work would be a longer journey, but clearly one I needed to undertake.

I found three practice lessons in this experience. First, it reminded me how important it is to keep cultivating a mind big enough and flexible enough to hold and examine apparently contradictory or incompatible realities. Emptiness is form and form is emptiness. I am right and I am wrong. Second, it reminded me that my anger is something for which I am responsible. While my anger may be sparked by another’s actions, the anger is mine, and only one of many ways I can respond. Third, it underscored the power of apology as a tool to awaken compassion. No matter how heated the emotional climate, no matter how injured I may feel, no matter how justified I may feel in my actions, the minute I recognize I have a part in adding to someone else’s suffering and consider apologizing, I open the gate to compassion. Without denying my own injury or anger, I make space for the reality of the other person’s suffering. My apology – accepted or not – acknowledges my karmic connection to this other person and his suffering. It helps me with my own feelings and eases my karmic burden.
And it reminds me I am connected to all people and to their suffering and that my actions, whatever my emotions and whatever my ideas of right and wrong, have important consequences.