Saturday, April 16, 2005
While attending a conference in Switzerland this summer I had the opportunity to hear a talk on the subject of apology. I did not intend on listening to that lecture, but I went anyway prepared for a boring afternoon that would likely include a brief nap. What I heard, though, was remarkable enough to keep me both awake and interested.
The context of the conference was global, and so the talk was given from an international perspective. I will discuss that aspect later. The talk I heard was called “The Power of Apology”. Now when I think of apology, ‘power’ is not the first word that comes to mind. I normally think of humility, admittance of guilt, and shame.
In spite of that, the lecturer spoke about the power inherent in an apology, if the apology is given in a sincere and truthful manner. Listen carefully, because this is good advice for the rest of our lives. An apology must never be conditional. Therefore, you should never say, “I’m sorry if I offended you…” or “I apologize, but…”. It must always include the reason for the grievance and be followed by an offering for peace and reconciliation. That way, the past is addressed, the present is before you, and there is a clear path for a hopeful future.
There really is power in apology. It has the power to prevent little annoyances from piling up on one another until the weight of all combined is too much to bear and the situation explodes. Apology contains the power to mend broken friendships far quicker than anything else. It also possesses the power to bring hope to a seemingly hopeless situation. Finally, apology has the amazing ability to strengthen each of us every time we make use of it.
Now, there is plenty there to set you thinking, I hope, about a relationship you have that could possibly be in need of apology, but I want to provide a larger, global demonstration of the power of apology. As I mentioned earlier, I learned this all at a conference this summer entitled “Agenda for Reconciliation”. Now, unlike most conferences I have attended in the past, this was not merely a collection of intellectuals or social activists, but rather a mixture of those folks with people who were in dire need of reconciliation.
Before the conference began, our leaders explained to us that in the following week, individuals would arrive who would be unlike anyone that we have met. Their identities would be secret and their discussion closed but we would be allowed to engage them in conversation. The people that came were from Sierra Leone, the poorest country on our planet, and one embroiled in brutal conflict. Those that arrived were not merely citizens, but rather high-level government officials and upper echelon rebel leaders.
These were men and women who the previous week had been shooting at one another, but had agreed to lay down their arms to come to Switzerland and talk. I expected to see a group walking around who reminded me of Rambo, but they looked, spoke, and acted just like you and me. I do not know the content of what was discussed in their room, but I can give a brief update on the conflict ravaging Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone is a tiny country, but about half its land is fully in control of the rebel forces, Revolutionary United Front. Most of us have probably never seen Sierra Leone, or maybe even heard of it, but I guarantee you have seen a product of Sierra Leone, which is a source of their conflict – diamonds. The rebel forces control many of the diamond mines and run them as slave operations. There is a strong connection between the illicit diamond trade and the black market arms trade there. So, there is constant fighting between the rebel forces and the government that is trying to maintain control over a virtually uncontrollable situation.
These were the men and women who sat down at a table in Switzerland to discuss their differences. I know that there were many apologies made and reconciliation was begun. At the close of the conference, we all attended a final plenary session where the Defense Minister for Sierra Leone rose to make a speech. He said there was a man in the room who, had he seen him last week, he would have shot him and vice-versa. He asked that man, one of the top rebel leaders to stand. Then he called him to the stage, and I will close with his final remark, which left the room in awe and filled with hope. He said, as the rebel leader approached the stage, “Observe the power of reconciliation.” They embraced.
Genuine apology can be a powerful thing, inextricably bound as it is to the essential act of repentence. At the same time, I remain convinced that forgiveness is a more potent tool when it comes to mending broken relationships on a personal, and even global, level.