Not-Sorry’s Not Worth It, but Sorry-Plus Is a Beautiful Move

Some say it started with a hashtag.

It took off in the Twitterverse and inspired songs by punk rockers Amen and pop phenomenon Demi Lovato.

The punchy one-liner even found its way into a successful ad series for the ever-delectable Reese’s peanut butter cup, in which a snarky male voiceover extols Reese’s with in-your-face bravado, adding “not sorry!” as a parting shot.

Not sorry in a candy commerical is clever, and my favorite in the Reese’s series is the one that tempts Halloween candy buyers to leave the lights off and keep the Reese’s to themselves.

I’m not saying not sorry’s not funny.

But it can also hurt, like a lot of things we’ve come to accept in our culture of snark and cynicism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sorry-not-sorry and other insincere ways we apologize because helping school children restore the harm of hurtful words and pushy physicality is part of my daily work.

The how-tos of hurtfulness are brought to a sharply practical level when you see little people try them out on the playground, and in a culture overloaded with denigration and smack talk, schools are being assigned responsibility for the social-emotional growth of future citizens with little outside help.

Even a heartfelt “sorry” may not restore relationships and heal the harm inflicted by thoughtless words and pushy powerplays.

The best apologies are accompanied by action, a genuine gesture embodying the goodwill of the words we say when we’re truly sorry.

Zacchaeus, Niels Larsen Stevns

My favorite example is told in the gospel of Luke, in which a tax collecting cheater named Zacchaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was in town and climbed a tree to get a glimpse of the healer who actually practiced what he preached.

We all know what happened. To the crowd’s amazement Jesus looked up, called Zacchaeus by name and announced that he intended to visit the despised man’s home.

Jesus was claiming to be God’s visitation, which explains the little man’s curiosity, and after his encounter with Christ, Zacchaeus was indeed a cheater changed. The man made wealthy through corruption joyfully volunteered to give half his money to the poor and to pay back everyone he’d ripped off four times as much as he’d taken from them.

That’s what I call sorry, and Zaccheus’ humility led to freedom and joy.

Searching for ways to explain the concept of a genuine apology to first graders who easily slip into Disney-style smack talk when they’re extra full of themselves, I’ve discovered some profound examples in the books I read to them. Some are so powerful that they penetrate my heart each year, as they continue to reveal how far I still have to go to with my own half-hearted sorrys.

There’s the way Lizzy Bruin returns Sister’s teddy and says she can be the teacher next time they play in The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Friends. There’s Trudy Ludwig’s Sorry! which reveals through character action why merely saying sorry doesn’t cut it.

In real life, the cheap laugh elicited by sorry-not-sorry isn’t worth it.

But when we apologize Zacchaeus-style, with added gestures of humble good will, we create an opening for real reconciliation, joy for the one we’ve offended and ourselves as well. We make space, whether we realize it or not, for the healing visitation of God.

Learning to apologize well takes humility. We must allow our pride and self-centeredness, the root of the injury inflicted, to wither. When we drop the defensive stance of not-sorry, self-revelation opens us to the possibility of a generous, Zacchaeus-style move toward the ones we’ve harmed.

At school we call it “sorry-plus.”

Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad stories always repay a re-reading, and The Lost Button is one of the best examples of sorry-plus I’ve ever encountered. You can find it in the little collection Frog and Toad are Friends.

After Frog and Toad return from a long walk through a meadow, by the river and down a dark, wooded path, the ever-grumpy Toad discovers that he has lost one of the buttons from his coat.

Frog instantly offers to go with Toad and find his friend’s lost button. He and a few other animals find button after button as the two retrace their steps, but each newly-found button is not the one Toad lost.

Toad nevertheless takes the buttons offered without a thank you and tucks each one in his pocket.

Just before they reach Toad’s house, Frog finds one more button and this time as he once again sees it isn’t his, Toad loses it.

In a pathetic fit Toad stomps his feet and rails, “The whole world is covered with buttons and not one of them is mine!” and he runs into his house.

“And there, on the floor,” writes Lobel matter-of-factly, “he saw his white, four-holed, big, thick, round button.”

“Oh,” Toad says, confronted with the truth. “It was here all the time.”

In this moment of self-revelation, Toad’s self-centeredness is reversed:

What a lot of trouble I made for Frog.

Now Toad could have run right out, shown Frog the lost button and said he was truly sorry for ruining Frog’s day. We all make mistakes, and while Toad makes a lot of them in these charming stories, we know that Frog is a forgiving soul.

But Toad makes the genuine gesture of the sorry-plus.

He removes his coat. There’s something very sweet about the shirtless bumpy body revealed in the next few illustrations.

Humility is naked; all self-defense and pretense are stripped away.

Toad takes thread and needle and decorates his coat, sewing each of the varied buttons he’d kept all over its front.

The next day the shirtless Toad humbly gives his coat to Frog.

“But now Toad doesn’t have a coat!” the kids sometimes protest.

“That’s true,” I acknowledge. “Maybe he will have to buy another one.”

This sorry-plus happens wordlessly, as does Frog’s acceptance. “Frog thought it was beautiful. He put on the coat and jumped for joy.”

That response helps us see that Toad’s gift was worth the loss of his coat. A Lost Button’s conclusion is tenderly understated:

None of the buttons fell off. Toad had sewed them on very well.

The penance was in the effort Toad had put into his work. And Frog’s joy tells us Toad’s gesture healed them both.

Each reconcilation I witness at school makes me more inclined to repair my own failures with more than a mere “sorry.”

I might surprise my husband with green chile for smothered burritos after an episode of impatience. Be the first to say yes to a colleague’s request for help if I’ve been neglecting her. Reach out to the family member I’ve been “too busy” for to ask if I can come for a visit.

I look for the smile that tells me I’m forgiven and relish the reconciliation.

In real life, not-sorry is not worth it. But sorry-plus can usher God’s visit into your house and mine.

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You might also like Counteracting the Big Me with Two Frogs and a Toad.

It took me a long time to “get” the restorative principle behind penance, but when I did it gave me peace. More on that journey in Luther and the Little Way: A Gradual Gift of a Catholic Conversion.

Have you witnessed or read about an amazing “sorry-plus”? I’d love to hear about it!

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash.