i'm sorry

In some families, please is described as the magic word.  In our house, however, it was sorry.

 ~Margaret Laurence

Etymologically, to be “sorry” is to be filled with sorrow or pain, from the Old Frisian word for pain, sar. 

“I am sorry” is said to express sorrow about any state of affairs that causes grief or upset- from a tragic situation that deeply distresses myself or others to one that merely causes a passing discomfort.  I can be sorry that so many people died in the earthquake as well as sorry that it’s raining outside.  Because it is only as deep or superficial as the feeling it triggers, the degree to which we feel sorrow can vary considerably from person to person and situation to situation. 

An expression of sorrow is also used to convey sympathy or compassion.  In times of suffering, saying “I’m sorry” is sometimes the only thing we can offer by way of an empathic response to another person’s distress.  We say “I’m sorry for your pain” even when we have not caused it.  

Sometimes regret or remorse also causes one to say “I’m sorry” and is offered to the offended party as an apology for one’s actions.  Unfortunately, because of its use in this context, saying “I’m sorry” is often confused with an admission of guilt, and sometimes also exacted from the offending party as a kind of price to pay to even the score.

Then there is the ever popular “I’m sorry you feel that way” which is a convenient semantic trick when you want to express compassion without really taking on another person’s suffering.  This is particularly useful when we want to sidestep responsibility for something for which we feel wrongfully blamed.   We really do not really feel empathic sorrow at all.

The rise of pop psychology and of popular aphorisms like “own your own shit” or “don’t pick up what isn’t yours”, although helpful to discerning the lack of a direct causal link between a situation and my reaction to it and while it can defuse violent communication, can also facilitate more subtle forms of violence such as ignoring someone in distress.

Sorry, really, is not about you.
~ Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones


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