Prison Stories: A Good Apology


A Good Apology

One of the most important lessons I learned from my students in prison was the value—the necessity—of making mistakes. We all make mistakes. All the time. We are not designed to be perfect. In fact, I’ve noticed that perfect people—and people who have all the answers—seldom win popularity contests or find many close friends. Being open, vulnerable and willing to admit what we do wrong does connect us in far more genuine ways.

I learned to ask my students,”Who made a good mistake?” We defined that as one that teaches us something. Learning requires confidence, but a healthy dose of humility is required too. Mistakes help us learn more than doing things perfectly. Lessons learned from mistakes stick with us longer. People in prison are intimately aware of their own mistakes—and, I might add, fairly observant of other people’s missteps, especially those of elected officials. People who live behind bars develop a sharp sense of justice, often because justice has been denied them.

My students and I tossed a lot of these issues around in civics class as we were all learning how to be better citizens by resolving conflicts, shoring up relationships and building community. Many of the men I knew had been hurt—and had hurt others. Many felt betrayed by people who were supposed to care about them:  their school systems, the police and the larger community. Questions about forgiveness and apologies rose up. At a particularly difficult, painful and contentious time in our American life together, I’ve watched people in power apologize. They could have used some lessons from the men I knew behind bars.

We talked about what makes “a good apology,” what to do and what not to do. My students roll played, talked in small groups and thought about the apologies they had experienced. We concluded that most people usually know when they’ve hurt someone else. Together, my students and I came up with a few basics:

      1. Be careful of timing. Don’t wait too long, but avoid trying to apologize when people are still angry and not able to hear clearly.
      2. Some soul searching is sometimes necessary to figure out what we’ve done wrong. Asking the person you’ve hurt how they feel helps too. Validate their feelings. For example: “When I shared something after you told me not to, you must feel hurt and betrayed.”
      3. Acknowledge your regret for your behavior and ask if the other person can think of a way to repair the damage.
      4. Announce that you will try very hard to never repeat the behavior.
      5. Recognize that it often takes time to re-establish trust.

Behaviors that make things even worse are:

      1. Not apologizing directly to the person you’ve hurt.
      2. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
      3. Pulling in a 3rd person without permission from the person you’ve wronged. “Triangles” usually complicate things.
      4. Saying, “So and so does it too!” or “So and so does it far worse than me!”

Ironically, owning our own behavior and apologizing gives us more freedom. It makes us human. It connects us to people. It can go a long way toward healing the brokenness between and among us.

Erick Erickson: The GOP After Donald Trump, an article and a video from the New York Times on October 14, 2016 about a RedState gathering of Never Trump Republicans, shows how upset and unsure people are about the future of the GOP. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I don’t agree with most of their stances on issues, but I wish I could sit down and talk to people who do not agree with me.  No one party has all the answers. I know that for a healthy democracy to work well, we need a healthy party (or parties) on the other side. I love the idea that truth—and often the solution to problems—comes out of both sides listening carefully. Compromise is essential. Our elected officials used to do this in the chambers of Congress, but our deep divisions and the demonizing that is happening in our current politics is poisoning the air and making progress almost impossible.

As citizens in what is supposed to be a participatory democratic system, we cannot let ourselves off the hook by pointing at “corrupt politicians” or constantly demonize people on the other side. Both liberals and conservatives do it, along with shouting and name calling. Our elected officials reflect who we are, and we need to do the work of mending and moving forward. We also need to realize that there are 535 people in Congress, and many still try hard to reach across the aisle and work things out with creative, respectful,  bi-partisan cooperation. They need our support.

I am so moved and impressed by the Republicans in this video who are stopping to ask what responsibility they’ve had in creating the deep divisions. Katie Pavlich from Fox News says she feels demonized by the left for her beliefs. She also says we care about the same issues. I think so too. Glenn Beck says he has been doing some painful soul searching about his part in the great divides. He is wanting to do more listening and says we must start talking to each other and chart a new course. We can all do that! We can listen and own our part in the brokenness and bitterness.

Krista Tippett’s Civil Conversations Project on has a place to start. With two people holding opposing views, her questions are: 1) What in your own position makes you uncomfortable? 2) What do you admire about the people and positions on the other side?

Part of the problem is our geographic divisions and the difficulty of meeting and knowing people who are different and hold very different ideas. After growing up in northern Michigan with people very much like me, one of my life’s greatest gifts was having the privilege of teaching in a federal prison. Almost no one shared a background like mine. My students challenged me, made me squirm, and made me change my mind about the country I live in. They also nurtured me for twenty-five years. I owe them, and writing my book is one way to give them a voice. Now in this painful and difficult time, I want to meet and talk to people on the other side of the political fence—listen carefully and own my part of the problem. Good apologies are a good place to start and go a long way toward pulling us together again.