February 28, 2012
I’ve been driving for more than 25 years now (!), and to date my accidents have been few and minor, though the first occurred at the end of my driving test at age 16, when I hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a parked car. I didn’t pass (and I’d already flubbed my three-point turn, so I wouldn’t have anyway), but neither was I cited; no one knew how to ticket an unlicensed driver with tacit permission to drive, so they left it alone and my mom’s insurance funded the repairs. I didn’t go back to retest for an entire year, but by then I’d practiced and grown confident from many nights of sneaking out with friends and cruising the deserted streets of Raleigh.
In each of my subsequent three accidents over the next quarter-century, my car was rear-ended, and it was not my fault–I think legally it may never be the fault of the driver who is hit from behind, but I’m saying I didn’t suddenly slam on my brakes and catch the driver behind me unawares; their cars simply slid into mine.
The first time was on a road slick with new rain, and the girl who did it was contrite, though virtually blameless, I felt. The second time the woman pushed my car into the car in front of me as I waited at a red light, crunching both ends, and she was so adamant in denouncing her unresponsive brakes she must have forgotten to apologize, or indeed acknowledge me or my frightened children. In the moment all I registered was elation: we’d been hit and were unhurt! My babies were all right!
But later her failure to offer this courtesy rankled, and I know that has colored my recent collision, which was far less serious, and minus my children in the car. I have wronged and been wronged far wronger than these wrongs–I can barely even call these incidents wrongs. Since redress has been proffered, they’re slights at best. Why do I still want the apology? Why does not getting one feel like the greater injury?
For a long while my older son couldn’t grasp why he was being asked to apologize if he stepped on someone’s foot, say, or played a little too roughly with his little brother and made him cry. “But I didn’t mean to do it!” he would exclaim. “It was an accident!” It seemed to him an affront to have to say sorry under these circumstances, like an admission of guilt. It was as if he’d been advised by corporate counsel to avoid liability and damn the bad PR.
I would explain that the person was still hurt, regardless of his motives, and deserved an apology. I would say that I was sure he would never cause harm deliberately; nonetheless he should still say sorry. I would say we are still responsible for our actions, even when they seem entirely beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, and sometimes maybe we needed to have taken more care than we did. It took a while to sink in, but at age seven I think he gets it. His apologies are more often than not sincere and spontaneous. That’s why I don’t mind when the other ones are clearly to stave off my badgering.
We say sorry for things that aren’t at all our fault. When someone dies, we’re sorry for the loss. We’re sorry someone didn’t get a job or that they lost a job or that a relationship ended. Sometimes that’s an irritant–it’s not your fault, the person will shoot back bitterly. But mostly it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s offered. To be told your sadness is shared by someone else, that it is felt chiefly because you feel it, can be deeply comforting.
I walk my younger son through these steps now when someone enters the orbit of his explosive energy and gets a face full of Legos or an errant elbow. Check on your friend. Ask if he’s all right. Say sorry. (And if it’s said inaudibly or with overt hostility, try again.) Try to make things right. Regret that you made the mistake. Resolve to do better. Go through the motions, even if you don’t feel sorry. Empathy may be more of a skill than a trait, but it can be practiced, strengthened. It can become a part of you.