The Hardest Word

One of my earliest childhood memories was when I was caught munching on a chocolate bar that I shouldn’t have been. It’s not that I wasn’t allowed chocolate. My mother, in her inquisitive ’20 questions’ though, determined that I actually lifted the chocolate bar from the store we visited earlier that day. In fact, it only took two questions. “Where did you get that bar?” and “How did you pay for it?” This was my first clue in my early life that I did not possess the artful skill of deception. I have known since that I am a lousy liar and ought not to ever put myself in a position where that might seem like an option. Without hesitation, she grabbed the bar and marched me “by the ear” back to the store where I had to make a very public apology to the store clerk. It was incredibly difficult to mutter the words “I’m sorry”.


Why is saying sorry so hard? To begin with, you are admitting you were wrong. Surely we all know though, as humans, we are not perfect, and make errors in judgement from time to time. Yet there is something in all of us that prevents us from remembering this fact and it makes it so much harder to make that admission of fallibility. We do not want to be seen as flawed or immoral. It is embarrassing and shameful to expose our dark side, though it is present in everyone.


It is not just the likes of Tiger Woods who needs to say sorry for past indiscretions, institutions have plenty of apologies to make too. When the Pope can’t apologize for obvious sins of the past, what example is he setting? Corporations have plenty to be sorry about too. United Airlines couldn’t say sorry to a musician when they destroyed his $3,000 guitar. It cost them much more than that when he wrote a song that went viral on YouTube. Has Union Carbide (or Dow Chemical who subsequently acquired UC) ever said sorry to the people of Bhopal? I am pretty sure suing women activists from Bhopal who demonstrated and demanded help to clean up the toxic pollution that still covers their community is not an apology. There really are too many examples of WHAT NOT to do when a corporate entity needs to apologize to list here.


Michael McCain the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods re-wrote the textbook of WHAT to do when people were getting sick and dying from tainted meat. He appeared immediately in front of the cameras, before speaking to lawyers, accountants and Public Relations, to take full responsibility, communicate what was being done and … to express regrets. This was no Oscar performance, you could tell by the way he looked he was genuinely distraught. Since then, Maple Leaf has recovered and trust has been regained from people who previously bought their products.


Without sincere apologies, there is no going forward. You are blocked from any success or progress you seek, whether it is in a business or personal relationship, or peace amongst groups of people.


In 2010 I went to the Parihaka Peace Festival at the base of the stunning Mount Taranaki on the western shore of New Zealand. It is mostly a music festival, but it is in the heart of the Taranaki region of Maori country. The Taranaki region is significant because it was the only Maori region that did not sign the treaty the British imposed on the Maori when they ‘settled’ New Zealand over 150 years ago.


For some reason, New Zealand was the last island settled by European marauders. They knew it was there. The French even planted a flag and remained on a tiny peninsula off the South Island. It wasn’t until the British finally arrived and decided that the South Pacific paradise was fine place to farm that Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, became New Zealand. They promised the Maori their resources and land would be protected from those nasty French who were soon to follow. Though most Maori tribes saw little choice, the Taranaki Maori would have none of it and waged a different way to fight, a non-violent active resistance. They destroyed survey pegs, blocked road construction and ploughed confiscated lands. When the British got fed up, they waged war on them.   Soon enough Parihaka was destroyed and two million acres of land mass was confiscated and given or sold to settlers while Parihaka men were sent to prisons in the South for their belligerence. In 2010, it was the 150th anniversary of that war, and all the sins that typically happen in war. The Taranaki Maori are still bitter, yet want peace and perhaps most importantly, peace-of-mind.


There were workshops at the festival as well and one of them was an entertaining debate on the question “After 150 years, is peace still achievable?” Members of the audience voted the outcome by physically moving to the side after each debater presented their case, which made it interactive and fun. Someone made the point that peace is a ‘state of mind’ and can only come with forgiveness. The counter point was forgiveness can only come if someone asks for it.


After the debate, the audience could ask a question or make a 30 second statement. Many voiced their opinions but it was a decidedly white Scottish man with flaming red hair who moved the audience the most. He prefaced what he said with “though I was not here at the time, on behalf of my forefathers who came here and confiscated your land and brought injustices to your people …” tears welling, voice breaking … “I’m sorry”. This sincere apology was immediately met with a very appreciative and audible murmur of “tena koa”, which means “I hear (or see) you”. It was a powerful moment indeed.


At the most basic level, it is what the Taranaki Maoris want more than anything – a sincere apology from the government. Until then, they will not have peace within themselves and the tensions will continue. It seems so simple, yet so hard to do. Where is the mother of the Prime Minister of New Zealand? It is a comical thought but I can see my mother grabbing him by the ear and hauling him down to Parihaka to tell him to apologize. “Right now”!  


My mother passed away last summer. Obviously I was saddened by her death but it was also a relief she was no longer suffering from the cruel fate of Alzheimer’s. One does not die from Alzheimer disease. The fact is, an accident happened at the care facility she was staying at that resulted in massive internal bleeding and bruising on her body. It caused a stroke that no longer left her with the ability to swallow. She could not be fed intravenously so after ten days, she finally succumbed.


Tragedy enough, but more so considering the long-term care facility did not acknowledge the accident at first. Only until it was proven through persistent questioning and third party opinions, did they confess to how the accident happened. An explanation that was false and misleading. Though an apology came with the confession, it was made to mitigate whatever pending legal measures our family might take. It was an infuriating process for me. If they had quickly taken responsibility for the mistake, explained what measures they were taking to prevent it from happening again – and sincerely said sorry, that would have been the end of it for me. Instead, their denial and subsequent cover-up made a painful situation much worse. My mother deserved much more.


So do the citizens of Bhopal, the Maoris and other native groups around the Globe. When we are wrong, we need to find the courage to say “I am sorry”. And then hope the transgressed have the courage to forgive. Only then, can you both move on.


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