Saturday, October 3, 2020


I've been thinking this week of the old saying that in getting older and having kids you become more conservative. So the line goes, in a nutshell, that with responsibility comes a certain amount of aversion to risk. I suppose this is in some way true, and heretofore I thought I was a pretty conservative dad, but in fact I think fatherhood has made me more liberal. 

I say this namely because I now see just how useless, how anger- and resentment-provoking, how contradictory to Christian and liberal education, and how stifling are authoritarian and forceful parenting. And in the process of learning to back off, trust, think creatively, to exchange efficiency for learning, and to model behavior, I've become pretty comfortable saying I'm wrong. 

It's no small help that my wife is exceedingly good at making honest apology, and that's not only been a positive example but it has also shamed me into getting better at it. Once you get good at offering honest apology, though, you realize how feeble and weaselly are most that you receive. I'll start by recalling my favorite fake, "I'm sorry if anything I said upset you." 

This evasion is impressively broad in its exculpatory powers. First it implies there's a possibility that the interlocutor was not offended, which of course doesn't mean that he who makes such apology is not guilty of having said something inappropriate. Second, it puts the onus on the hearer to take and articulate offense, which in instances of obvious insult should hardly be the case. Third, it implies an inability on the part of the offender to conceive of what he did or did not do as being either inherently offensive or at least offensive to you. It's tantamount to saying, "I can't see how I did anything wrong." 

Another clever apology is, "I'm sorry the way things turned out," as if the offense were just an unfortunate turn of fate and not a misdeed or something that could or ought have been avoided. "I've said I'm sorry, what more do you want?" is another classic, of course, implying that you don't need any time to feel better and assuming that their apology was sufficient amends. Though not strictly apologies, we ought to mention the expression of faux surprise that they've insulted you, as if your sensitivity were the issue, and preemptive irritation with you for taking issue with them.

Behind all of these defenses lies a deliberate confusion between regret and remorse, the former being simple dismay that an act or omission resulted in misfortune, and the latter being acceptance of the moral responsibility for it. 

The regretful person usually means something like, "I'm sorry what I did brought about something bad for you, but: 
  • I couldn't have done anything differently.
  • I didn't have any choice.
  • I didn't know any better.
  • I didn't expect that would happen.
  • I did everything that I could. 
Contained in all those exceptions is exoneration. 

The remorseful, however, accept the moral responsibility. Their conscience gnaws at them, to borrow from remorse's origin in Latin's remordere, "to bite back," because they should have acted differently. In my experience the people who offer regret but not remorse do so with remarkable deftness and subtleness of argument. They always, in my experience, consider themselves very good people and are moralizing types. It's amusing to note that they're also extremely opposed to lying, but at the same time marvelously skilled in omitting a truth or not telling the whole truth. 

They also very easily confuse two other words: generosity and altruism. Namely, they confuse liberality in giving with giving even at one's disadvantage. People who give from their abundance may indeed be said to be acting generously, and the generous fairly consider themselves good for such giving. 

Sometimes the generosity is financial, but some people are generous with praise, others with their time, and so on. However, few people are generous with everything—and fair enough, for who has enough of everything to share it all?—but most people, even people who are generous in giving away one thing, are downright miserly in protecting at least one thing.

Someone who is generous with money but embarrassed of his children will give you freely from his purse but not offer praise for your children or for your parenting. Someone that values a virtue but is vain and insecure about his possession of it will praise you in private but not in public. Such people give generously from their excess, but jealously guard that of which they possess less than they desire. This too is understandable, but the selectively generous seem by a great margin to overestimate their virtue, forgetting that selective generosity is far less noble than broad altruism.

What unites the regretful-but-not-remorseful and the generous-but-not-altruistic is fear. Fear at being seen as less than they are: less free, less rich, less successful, less powerful, less good, less loved. As such their false apologies and generosity both are really self-centered, which is obvious to all except them. If only they realized how miserable they look, and how they make me wonder what terrible judgments, constrictions, manipulations, fears, and punishments were inflicted on them in their childhoods to make them so miserable in adulthood.

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