Why Won’t You Follow My Script?

doubtingcatI read Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? in a sitting (with some skimming). It contains some reasonable advice here and there, but overall I found it skewed and opinionated. As I read further, I become more and more a Cat of Doubt, gazing off into the distance.

It starts out on a reasonable note; she offers a “sorry sampler,” a basic taxonomy of apologies ranging from the mildest to the most severe. I think: Yay! Here’s someone who sees gradations! Here’s someone who distinguishes among the vastly variegated versions of everyday life! But then she proceeds into her main argument, and my stomach sinks:


  1. If your apology isn’t perfect (on Lerner’s terms), it’s no apology at all. To make a perfect apology, you must take full responsibility for your actions, with no “buts,” contextual explanations, or uncertainties. (If you happen to be uncertain, just make yourself certain.)
  2. Forgiveness is overrated–and it’s not binary. You can forgive someone 90 percent but keep the 10 percent of anger. (Go for it! Keep that anger!) What’s more, there are other ways to feel better about the past. You don’t have to forgive. What you want is your own peace, and you can get it.

Why does she hold the offending party to the most uncompromising standards, and the offended party to no standards at all? Why does she present apology as “all or nothing” but forgiveness as piecemeal and inessential?

She does invoke some subtlety by advising readers to “lean into generosity,” by describing scenarios where people gradually work their way into the right words, and by acknowledging, here and there, that not all situations are alike. In addition, she makes a good case for a pure apology where such apology is appropriate.

All the same, this book has flaws of foundation, reasoning, and result.

Flaws of foundation: The book draws primarily on her own observations (from clinical work and personal life), a few cartoons, and a handful of other sources. A vast literature (of philosophy, history, poetry, drama, fiction, theology, psychology, linguistics, and other fields) goes unexamined. Even the endnotes are sparse.

Example: In the section “No One Definition of Forgiveness Fits All,” she observes that some people confuse forgiving with letting go. That’s a good point. But instead of considering what forgiveness might be, instead of taking up the topic seriously, she focuses on ways of letting go, implying that that’s what people really want when they talk about forgiveness. In fact, people may just as badly want a restored relationship or a chance to demonstrate goodwill.

Flaws of reasoning: She seems to assume that (a) there is usually a clear, defined offense at stake and (b) the parties are in a speaking relationship. From there, she casts her own (questionable but unquestioned) interpretation on the scenarios she presents.

(In reality, many situations are unclear at the outset and can arise from simple misunderstandings: for instance, in email or texting, which often lack tone, continuity, and completeness. These fragmentary communications can tempt people into apology guesswork, which does not help anyone involved. The recipient of the “guesswork” gets irritated, and the apologizer bewildered.)

Example: She describes an incident at an airport where, during a long wait for a rental car, she unthinkingly gave some candy and nuts to a little girl, in the mother’s presence. The mother said nothing about it, but Lerner kept thinking of apologizing and finally did so. The mother replied, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it.” She (Lerner) took this as the ultimate simple, gracious acceptance of her apology–but maybe the mother was thinking, “No one ever apologizes to me. It’s nice to have that happen for a change.” Or maybe: “I’m too tired to think of an answer, so I’ll thank her.” Or even: “I don’t want to get into it.” Over email, the words might have been even more ambiguous.

Flaws of result: Her ideal apology (presented several times, in various wordings, over the course of the book) does not always seem appropriate.

Example: She describes a situation where her friend invited her to her book release. She traveled from Kansas to New York–at considerable expense–for this occasion. At the party, she found herself absorbed in conversation with one person (whom she knew); two hours went by, and the two didn’t notice that the company had moved into another room for toasts. They didn’t join the toasting until the ritual was halfway through.

After she had returned to Kansas, the friend called her in anger. How could she have behaved so thoughtlessly? How could she have ignored the other people and the toasts? Lerner began with an “I’m sorry but…” and followed it with an “I’m sorry you were so upset.” A few days later, she called her friend back to offer a “genuine” apology–this time without qualification.

Whether this was right or wrong depends, of course, on many things. But should one have to apologize for something that was neither ill-intended nor inherently offensive? If she had been sitting in a corner glaring at everyone, or if she had been gossiping or showing off, that would have been a different matter;  but from what I can tell from the story, she came to the party to support her friend. There is no crime in getting absorbed in a conversation. If the host wished to involve everyone in a toast, she could have given a clear signal. I do not think it would have been wrong to say, “I think there was a misunderstanding. Let’s sort this out.”

In some situations, I have imagined an offense where there was absolutely none intended; it meant everything to hear, from the other person, “That’s not at all what I meant; here’s what was going on.” An apology would have actually confused things, since it would have affirmed the hurt. Once I understood what had happened, I was no longer upset.

When something goes wrong between two people, they can speak about it. They don’t have to follow a script; while avoiding finger-pointing, they can say what they wish to say and listen to each other. Lerner’s book ignores the possibility that people can use their own words and minds–and draw on resources other than her advice.

Image credit: Someone made this beautiful cat sculpture in Fort Tryon Park. I took the photo.

Note: I made some edits, and then some additions, to this piece after posting it.

Cura te ipsum

self-portrait-with-the-idol-jpglargeWe hear the sayings “Physician, heal thyself” (from Luke 4:23) or “Physician, Physician, Heal thine own limp!” from Genesis Rabbah 23:4. Self-help is not an industry; it’s part of life. No matter what our age (beyond, say, age 3), profession, or situation, we not only solve many of our own problems, but figure out some of the solutions. In doing so, we may draw on all sorts of advice or wisdom from the near or distant past, but we decide how to apply it.

The self-help industry, then, is misnamed. It isn’t about self-help at all; at its worst, it is about selling you a product that supposedly will help you. To sell it, the creator or marketer tries to convince you that it’s better than anything else out there and that it addresses the problem in a novel way. This involves ignoring or dismissing (or simply not knowing) past wisdom.

Let me backtrack: I see two kinds of books that aim to help you find your way through life. One kind is a book of knowledge or wisdom; it draws on what has been known and said and does not promise you any big or swift answers. It leaves you to arrive at your own conclusions. The other kind excludes previous wisdom for the sake of appearing new or original. Here the point is not to give you perspective but rather to put forth a particular idea, program, product, or plan.

This explains, in part, why some self-help literature, and the journalism surrounding it, pays little or no attention to philosophy, literature, or even classic psychology. Oblivion blows a blizzard over what has been said before. In her New York Magazine article “Forgiveness Is Not a Binary State,” Cari Romm writes,

Forgiveness, clearly, is a highly personal choice, speeding healing for some and precluding healing for others. But what does it even mean to forgive, anyway?

It’s something we haven’t been asking ourselves for very long — it wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists even started to really study forgiveness — but psychologist Harriet Lerner believes we’ve been too hasty to rush into an answer. In her new book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, Lerner argues that we’re flying blind: Academic research and conventional wisdom alike emphasize the positive effects of forgiveness without having reached any clear consensus as to what the act of forgiving really looks like.

Wait a second–who says we haven’t been asking ourselves about the nature of forgiveness for very long? Just look up “forgiveness” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and you will see a long and detailed entry, with reference to works through the centuries. But there’s much more, even in the psychological literature. Jung wrote extensively on confession (and the accompanying forgiveness); other scholars around the turn of the twentieth century began examining the psychology of religion, which included concepts of forgiveness. (See, for instance, Edwin J. Starbuck, “Contributions to  the Psychology of Religion,”The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 9, No. 1 [Oct., 1897], pp. 70-124.) It is true that psychologists have been studying forgiveness more intensively than before, but the topic is by no means new.

I have not yet read Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize? in full, but it seems to dispense too readily with forgiveness. On p. 54, she writes: “Some cultural groups place a high premium on apologies and forgiveness. Others do not.” In other words, she seems to suggest that its value is relative. In an interview with Forbes, she says, “We do need to find ways to protect ourselves from the burden of carrying anger and resentment that isn’t serving us, and to grab some peace of mind. We can achieve this with or without forgiveness.” This ignores one of the main virtues of forgiveness: it helps reestablish some form of relationship, even a silent one, between the two people (and even between them and others). Sure, we can “grab some peace of mind” elsewhere. But isn’t there more at stake?

Her book (which I will read) is not the point here, though. I take issue more directly with Romm’s article and with the widespread practice, especially in so-called self-help literature, of exaggerating the newness of an idea. When it comes to books of wisdom, I trust and respect those that acknowledge what has come before, even if they proceed to question, criticize, or overturn it.

Romm’s larger argument in the article (and Lerner’s, which she cites) is that people mistakenly see forgiveness as binary: Either you forgive someone entirely, or you’re caught up in bitterness. But this simply isn’t true; there have been subtle discussions of forgiveness over the centuries.

Forgiveness involves coming to see another person, an injury, and one’s own anger in a much larger perspective–and, from there, restoring some kind of relationship, even an unspoken one. (I think of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.”) Such forgiveness is not always possible or desirable, but there are reasons why people long for it and seek it out. This is no pathological inclination, unless human connection is now deemed a disease. In that case, empty the libraries and close down the theatres. Declare language defunct.

Image credit: Paul Gaughin, Self-Portrait with the Idol (1893), courtesy of WikiArt.

Note: I made some minor edits and additions to this piece after posting it.