Love's Learning Curve.
BY MELISSA WARTEN
I grew up on apologies that often didn’t contain the words “I’m sorry.” That was okay, more than okay, a lot of the time. I learned from childhood that we are capable of hurting the ones we love in word and deed, but it’s what we do to show we love them that soothes the most. I would argue with my parents, squabble with my brother, and pick fights of my own, but at the end of the day, we’d crack jokes and kiss goodnight and wake up mostly new in the morning. A hand extended, forgiveness implied, and conflict tucked gently away in favor of a love that meant more.
I took that approach into friendships and relationships as I grew up; I carry it still. It makes me patient and tolerant and grateful. I have spent my life surrounded by unconditional love that does not demand apology, and that is a gift and a privilege, and I like the person it’s made me.
There’s a passivity to that life, though, and it has hurt me. I’ve let much-needed apologies stew in my bitterness and morph into, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I’ve ignored words that injured me, waiting for my cut to heal instead of reaching for salve. I’ve lent my expressions of wants, needs, and sorrows too much power for their infrequency, and by overthinking and under-expressing, convinced myself that my feelings are “too much.” I often do not speak up when I am hurting; I often let my self-righteousness keep me from genuinely apologizing. It is a double-edged sword I don’t want to wield.
It is only recently that I have realized that yes, actions speak louder than words, but sometimes quiet words do the most healing.
When I was in the early months of dating my boyfriend, we spent an afternoon together, and he spent much of it on his phone. The slight, in fact, was not at all a big deal—we spent lots of time together when he wasn’t on his phone, and I did not question that he cared about me more than the screen. I could have absorbed the irritation of the situation, swept it away in favor of a love that I knew to be much bigger. But he is an honest person with a tendency to make me want to be honest, too. It took me a mile walk and a lot of self-hype to be able to muster the words, “Hey, I’m upset about this.” His response was, “I didn’t realize; I should have; I’m sorry.”
The offense was so small, the apology so sincere, the shift so palpable. I hadn’t recognized the extent to which my resentment was simmering until I spoke it, and he took it off the heat completely. All it took was me being upfront about my feelings, and him hearing me and responding to me. Which, really, is no small thing. And we have continued to practice, and push each other, and now when we fight, we rarely walk a mile before a sincere “I’m sorry” bubbles up.
I am learning with him that accepting resentment feels easy but reaching for an apology does not have to be hard. I began to think I was figuring it out.
Then I got into a bigger fight with my dearest friend, a fight that happened because resentment boiled over and burned us both. We had spent months in tenuous comfort--growing in different directions, but nothing addressed, everything fine, surely fine. She had assumed we were going to spend a morning together; I slept late and didn’t check in. And when we saw each other the next time, she was cold and quiet and then suddenly she wasn’t, and the heat of her anger had little to do with that missed morning of quality time. Months and months of unchecked emotion came flaring up between us--that thing she’d said insulted me, but I never said anything; that choice I made hurt her but it’s fine, it’s your decision. No explanation from either of us was going to hold up in this court. In the face of so much, our efforts to apologize felt so small.
We came back. We said “I’m sorry” carefully, without certainty at first, and then in ways that weren’t words. That was okay. I am learning with her that it is okay to have a lot to feel, a lot to say. It is okay to ask for love and okay to rebuild a foundation.
Here’s what I’m learning for sure: that there is little more powerful in love than asking for forgiveness, except maybe accepting it. There’s something of God in that, isn’t there? In the confession of what you know to be wrong, in the acceptance of the true best of people. Saying sorry brings with it colors and sounds and heartbeats that “I love you” alone can’t quite do.
I want to be good, but I am far from perfect. I’m trying to take it on back to God and say, “Teach me that failure is not final and the need to apologize does not negate deserving forgiveness.”
Love is the best thing. Maybe forgiveness is implied when love is at its biggest. But sorry is still worth saying, and forgiveness still worth giving. And the learning curve is so, so worth it all.