Vows, commitments and modern life: Not apologizing or not accepting apologies

Not apologizing when we have the opportunity. 

If we have disturbed another person by acting unskillfully, and later the opportunity to apologize arises but, out of pride or laziness, we fail to do so we incur a secondary downfall.

Just as others harm us all of the time, we too harm others all of the time with our unskillful actions.  Normally we internally excuse our wrong behavior on the grounds of the other person provoking us in some way, “it’s their fault!”  But nobody has the power to provoke us, we allow ourselves to be provoked.  Ultimately, we need to be responsible for all of our behavior, regardless of what others do.  This is not easy, but its not being easy doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do. 

When we do harm others, such as saying something hurtful, then later, once we have calmed down, we need to make a point of apologizing.  I know a mother who has a bad habit of getting angry at her kid.  She is a very powerful and smart woman, and when she gets angry she can be downright nasty, controlling and hurtful.  But she also has an unshakable habit of always apologizing to her kid afterwards when she eventually calms down.  She tells her kid, “I’m sorry I got angry at you and treated you in that way.  Mommy’s anger just took over, and I am sorry.  When I get like that, I want you to know it is not your fault that I get so angry, it is my responsibility.  Just ignore me and know that it is my anger talking not me.”  Then she has a good laugh with her kid about how crazy she sometimes acts.  Because she has consistently done this, her son has learned how to take her mother’s anger in stride where it doesn’t affect him.  He knows she will later come apologize.  This doesn’t mean that he might not need to change his behavior if he has been doing something wrong, but it does prevent the anger from destroying the relationship and making things worse.  This mothers habit of apologizing and having a good laugh not only disarms the harmful effects of her anger, it also teaches her kid how to relate to his own feelings of anger and what he should do when he himself gets upset. 

Until we are an advanced bodhisattva, getting angry is pretty much unavoidable.  But apologizing afterwards is completely within our control.

One last thing, sometimes we hold off on giving our apology because actually it was the other person who started it and clearly they are the one who committed the bigger harm, so we think surely they must apologize first.  This is a completely mistaken way of thinking.  First, if they don’t apologize then we start getting upset at them about not apologizing when we think they should.  Second, just because they did something wrong doesn’t in any way excuse or justify our own mistakes.  We need to own up to our mistakes and take responsibility for them.  Third, when we apologize it often creates the space for the other person to apologize as well.  And even if they don’t apologize in return (which of course will have the potential to really make us angry again), we can at least know we did the right thing by apologizing.  If the other person doesn’t apologize as well, that is their mistake.  But at least from our own side we have done the right thing.

Not accepting others apologies. 

If someone who has previously harmed us later apologies and, without a good reason but not out of resentment (which is a root downfall) we refuse to accept, we incur a secondary downfall.

Very often if we were in a fight with somebody and they later apologize but we haven’t yet overcome our own anger towards them, we will take advantage of their apology as a sign of weakness and then we attack them one last time.  When we do this, they then get angry back and the cycle can start over, or at a minimum they decide they better not apologize again in the future because when they do so they get their hand bit off.  This is obviously completely wrong.

When somebody apologizes, that is them admitting they were wrong and they are seeking to make things right again.  Why would we not want to cooperate with that?  As bodhisattvas, we want others to attain enlightenment.  If they generate regret for their negativity and try to do something nice to set things straight, we should be delighted and welcome fully their effort.  From our own side, we should repay their apology with one of our own, and we should try have a good laugh with them about how sometimes we act silly.  Our accepting their apology is also a very powerful way of letting go of our own pent up resentment towards the other person.  Resentment is like a cancer within our mind.


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