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Some of you will remember the 1970 film Love Story. If you are like me, you remember it with disdain for its treacly banality, and the trite catch phrase, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It was a pop-culture sensation; and I understand the appeal of the concept – that love absolves us from remorse. But I’ve always thought they got it backwards. If you love someone, you should care about their physical pain or emotional hurt. One can express regret for someone’s suffering with or without feeling personally at fault for the situation. I have tended to use the words “I’m sorry” as simply meaning “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”

The tear-jerker Love Story was more about fairness than love. There was a class divide between the lovers, which disguised only a little bit that the bright and hard-working young woman’s opportunities, and the world’s expectations for her, were limited as much by her gender as her social status. One could not call it an updated “Romeo and Juliet” exactly, because the privileged young man lost his lover (to a fatal disease) but not his own life, and presumably moved on to inherit the success that was his due, without even having to say he was sorry (or to accept an apology from his domineering father). We all cried at the end at the injustice of it all.

The 1970s were full of pop-psychology fads. In addition to not having to say we were sorry, we also got to Be Here Now, and agree that I’m Okay, You’re Okay. These were meaningful messages to the generations that came up during the sickening Korean and Viet Nam Wars, and the last gasp of Jim Crow, in the radioactive glow of The Bomb. None of those things were our fault; we needed to accept our circumstances and move forward to The Age of Aquarius. We were eager to Make Love Not War.

Our awareness-raising worked. At least among ourselves we started to level the divides of race, economic class, and gender identity. This was sincere and serious business, and it is ongoing. (Our success can be measured by the strength of the backlash against it.) More pop psychology attached itself to our movement along the way. Everyone needed to take deep breaths, listen, not be belligerent, figure out “where you’re coming from” and meet each other on the other’s turf.  Thus, “I hear what you’re saying,” and “This is what I hear you saying,” became strategies for putting aside one’s own egocentric perspective to really listen and seek points of connection or compromise.

Now, the natural human response to imagining oneself walking in another’s shoes is going to be compassion and sometimes guilt. Has something we did or said, or failed to do or say, contributed to the hardships of another? Maybe the sources of those difficulties originated long before our time, but what are we doing to allay the problems now? When I start to understand, and care (or perhaps in caring, have made an effort to understand), I sure feel like saying “I’m sorry”!

But what if I don’t care and/or I don’t feel responsible and/or I have no intention of doing anything or changing my thinking? For these occasions we have: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” I admit I have used the phrase in the past and am likely to blurt it out in the future. There are times when I really do wish I could help, but I am at a loss  – all I feel able to do is express regret and sympathy. I suppose I could simply issue comforting grunts, for all that words mean at that moment. Still, words do have meaning, or should; and having been sensitized to the lameness of  “I’m sorry you feel that way,” I’m back to awareness-raising, starting with my own.

What does it mean to be sorry, to have regrets, to take responsibility – whether or not it’s “my fault”? These are the questions we ask ourselves increasingly as we mature. If the couple in Love Story had grown old together, I bet they would have learned to say “I’m sorry” to each other! And our “hero” – the young man who, for all of his privilege, could not save his true love – may have come to regret blowing off his father’s apology with “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Forgiveness is also a way of expressing our love, but one cannot accept an apology that hasn’t been offered.

Looking back now to the saint-like female character in Love Story, in the context of the escalating feminist movement of 1970, I wonder if the young woman was actually uttering something she herself would have liked to hear. Women spend a lot of time apologizing, placating, demurring and otherwise expressing a self-identity that early in life was instilled with second-class, subservient status. Our constrictions were given the guise of “modesty,” which literally means to minimize one’s assets or limit one’s reach. In the 1970s women increasingly asserted themselves in private and public. As they did so, they left a string of apologies in their wake, as every accomplishment felt, on some level, like a transgression.

In actuality, the apologies should have been flowing in the other direction, and we knew it in our guts. If it was too much to expect a sincere “I’m sorry” to issue out of the halls of patriarchal power any time soon, the women of 1970 might at least start with a suspension their own excessive expressions of (undeserved) guilt. Often, saying “I’m sorry” is an invitation for another to respond in kind. Since women have been uttering “I’m sorry” for a long time while having it said to us precious little, perhaps the dying heroine of Love Story figured: “Screw that – rather than wait for apologies that never come, I’ll just release everyone from the expectation, including myself.” What was the point of anyone saying “I’m sorry” for her fatal disease – something they had no control over at all? As a smart woman consigned to lesser status, she deserved more sincere and substantial apologies than that. They were not forthcoming then, and have not been issued since. In my opinion, anyone who loves women, or loves a woman, owes us some serious apologies, not to mention reparations, for our centuries of virtual enslavement and ongoing repression.

Hmmm, I have segued into a feminist rant. Should I be sorry?

My conclusions on the “sorry” business: I think it’s okay to be sorry and to say it. It is not okay to not be sorry but say you are. An insincere or condescending apology is pretty obvious – saying nothing would be better. A rote, almost unconscious “I’m sorry” doesn’t help either – find something else to fill awkward gaps in conversation. Finally, if you’re saying “I’m sorry” all the time and meaning it, because you really feel responsible or guilty or just deeply bad about all manner of things, it’s time to give yourself and everyone around you a break. You do not need to blame yourself, and others should not have to comfort or absolve you.

Happy 5775. Let’s love each other and be good to each other, so we really don’t need to say “I’m Sorry.”

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