Apology and Forgiveness: Restoring Dignity in Relationships

How to explore the practical applications of apology and forgiveness with students.

By Marianne Green

Media reports focusing on negative social-emotional behaviors of prominent public figures seem to be increasing and saturating daily life. In the midst of this media chaos, how might schools equip their students with methods for restoring dignity in relationships? Exploring the roles of apology and forgiveness in Sacred Scripture and with practical applications are two effective methods.

First consider the importance of apology. When we apologize, we restore dignity through acknowledgment of our hurtful actions and/or words to another (Mind Tools, “How to Apologize”). To apologize allows us to “perceive the wooden beam in [our] own eye” (Matthew 7:3). Through the use of this method, a dialogue is possible. Opportunities for a discussion on appropriate and inappropriate behavior also can occur (Psychology Today, “The Power of Apology”).

Apologies take courage and wisdom, and there are appropriate ways to apologize. Consider using either the Old Testament story of Joseph (Genesis 50) or the New Testament letters of James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9 to reflect further on courageous apologizing. For younger elementary students, perhaps Let’s Own Up by Janine Amos, The Grudge Keeper by Mara Rockliff, or Draw the Line by Kathryn Otoshi are options to help facilitate these types of discussions.

Another practical application would be analyzing how fictional characters or historic figures practice the Greater Good Science Center’s Six Steps to Making an Effective Apology (“A Better Way to Say Sorry”):

  1. An Expression of Regret
  2. An Explanation
  3. Acknowledgment of Responsibility
  4. A Promise not to Repeat the Offense
  5. An Offer of Repair
  6. A Request for Forgiveness

Helping students understand that apologies focus on personal responsibility is key. An apology is not an opportunity to give excuses. Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., comments, “Maybe you’re only 14% to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, ‘I’m sorry for my part in this’” (Psychology Today, “The 9 Rules for True Apologies”).

Why should teach the practice of apologizing? Robert Taibbi comments in his Psychology Today article that “Apologies are not about right or wrong, an argument about which reality is right, but instead about something else: Taking responsibility for unintentionally (or yes, sometimes intentionally) hurting someone emotionally or physically” (“The Art of the Apology”).

If apology is an awareness of how we harm others, then forgiveness is how we make “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed [us]” (UC Berkley Greater Good Science Center, “What is Forgiveness?”).

Both Jesus’ words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) and his teaching on forgiveness, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-35) are wonderful examples for students to explore releasing resentment.

Elementary students may also apply Jesus’ teachings to books such as Forgiveness by Cynthia A. Klingel or The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson. Adolescent and high-school students may further wish to examine connections to modern examples such as Terri Roberts, the mother of the Pennsylvania Amish school shooter, or the Brothers of Atlas testimonies from Algeria.

Fred Luskin, Ph.D., the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, stresses that forgiveness is “a trainable skill” (“The Choice to Forgive”). Luskin continues to explain that “Forgiving someone does not mean forgetting or approving of hurtful events in the past. Rather, it means letting go of your hurt and anger, and not making someone endlessly responsible for your emotional well-being.”

“To forgive is a virtue,” notes Patrick DiVietri, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Family Life Institute, and “How someone injures us will affect how it is easy to forgive” (“Forgiveness: The Only Remedy”). Again, forgiveness is not an acceptance of the hurtful behavior, but rather it is a virtue allowing someone to recognize the pain without permitting that pain to control them. Our actions matter, and helping students value the roles of apology and forgiveness will provide them with more tools to restore dignity in their relationships.

Marianne T. Green, M.A., a Golden Apple recipient and independent consultant for the Catholic Apostolate Center, is an adjunct faculty member of St. Joseph’s College. Her recent collaboration with Diocese of Reykjavik is featured on Instagram @Virtual_Disciple.

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