Beyond Sidestep Sorrys & Massaging Guilt – Bradley Jersak

Saying, “I am sorry,” can be very good and necessary.
But as my friend, Paul Young, a survivor of childhood serial abuse, says, “Sorry, can and often does go other, unhelpful ways.”
I’ve found the approach that 12-step takes to amends to be helpful and I notice how they draw a distinction between offering an apology and making amends:
“Think of amends as actions taken that demonstrate your new way of life…, whereas apologies are basically words. When you make amends, you acknowledge and align your values to your actions by admitting wrongdoing and then living by your principles.”
The amends approach of the recovery community helps avoid some common pitfalls into which I’ve stumbled. Among those pitfalls, I’ve experienced the following damaging mistakes when saying sorry:
1. When I have used ‘sorry’ as a way to manipulate how people feel about me.
2. When I have used ‘sorry’ as an expression of self-pity.
3. When I have used ‘sorry’ to control the conversation and the outcome of tensions or conflicts.
4. When I have used ‘sorry’ to try to extract a ‘sorry’ back from the other.
5. When I have used ‘sorry’ to try to extract forgiveness from those who are upset with me.
6. When I have used ‘sorry’ to bypass self-examination, actual repentance, or real change.
7. When I have used ‘sorry’ as a defense mechanism or shield of denial.
I could go on. These are just seven errors I have made. They are social errors that the settlers of Canada and the US continue making with the Indigenous Nations and with those whom settlers imported as slaves. This especially shows in our celebrations of July 1 and July 4, when our gratitude overlooks the cost to others for whom our arrival became so tragic.
I/we need to learn to connect the word “sorry” with “sorrow” … to acknowledge that I/we have caused sorrow, and I/we need to become willing to bear and feel sorrow for our actions, and to genuinely seek to make it right.
How might amends play out when the harms I’ve/we’ve caused can’t easily be undone and are even likely to go unforgiven by those I offended? Instead of building walls of denial, defensiveness, and pseudo-sorries, I/we can begin by cleaning up my/our side of the street and by learning to live my amends.
What might living our amends look like in the case of the 2021 revelations of the unmarked graves of Indigenous children who suffered the horrors of the state-contracted, religion-run residential schools? Here is a key to living our amends: we don’t simply decide what sacrifices make sense for us. We need to ask those who’ve suffered harm to lay that out.
*Real* reconciliation can’t involve “sidestep sorrys” or it is just another thing settlers do TO First Nations people to massage our own guilt and manipulate outcomes. It certainly can’t bypass facing the truth (and anger and grief) of the generational trauma of survivors. And it sure as hell better not be another process we colonize just to restore the status quo.

We might at least do a check-up. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has been established in Canada by First Nations elders and partnering allies. From their site,

The NCTR educates Canadians on the profound injustices inflicted on First Nations, Inuit and the Métis Nation by the forced removal of children to attend residential schools and the widespread abuse suffered in those schools.

We preserve the record of these human rights abuses, and promote continued research and learning on the legacy of residential schools. Our goal is to honour Survivors and to foster reconciliation and healing on the foundation of truth telling…

The NCTR is overseen by a Governing Circle. The Circle includes Survivors and representatives of the University of Manitoba and other partners. The majority of Governing Circle members are First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

The Governing Circle is guided by a Survivors Circle, as well as by Elders and Knowledge Keepers.

Establishing these governance structures were essential to ensuring Survivors and partners are always at the very heart of the NCTR and that the NCTR honours and upholds Indigenous laws and protocols.

~ Eugene Arcand, No. 781, residential school Survivor, and Survivor Circle member, Muskeg Lake Cree Nation

As a 3rd generation Canadian immigrant settler, I believe that at the very least, it is my responsibility to explore the 94 calls to action issued and stewarded by the NCTR … and instead of a brief moment of silence and a few pithy memes once/year, I can review the calls to action and inquire with my PM, my MP, and my MLA about our progress. I can also invest some time in these links as part of living my amends through seeking understanding and learning to listen better and growing in compassion:

As I’ve reviewed the collections and exhibitions, I recognize that in the end, “Sorry” sure doesn’t say it or cut it. But I am. I’m sorry. Today, I’m sitting with the sorrow of others.

I gratefully acknowledge that I live in the traditional and unceded territory of the Stó:lō people.  
Picture of Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More