I’ve never agreed with the answer “I don’t know” to explain our own actions. Maybe it’s my drive to try and figure the world out or maybe it’s because I was brought up to think about what I had done if I had misbehaved and then was expected to reflect and fully apologise for it. I remember that my Dad would emphasise that there was a lesson in everything. Like the time I was 15 and wrote “Mr Brown is Gay” in the middle of my exercise book. And Mr Brown found it. He spent the whole lesson giving us a shouty lecture on the three meanings of ‘gay’ (homosexual, happy and the plain old offensive use of the word) then demanded from me which one I meant. “Happy gay, Sir” I replied with a smirk. At which he barked for me to get out of his class. I was a fairly rebellious teenager and usually spoke my mind which got me into trouble often, especially with Mr Brown. The offensive pages from my exercise book were ripped out and given to my father at the next parents evening. and I remember it like it was yesterday. The heavy lump drop from my throat into my stomach as I felt so ashamed that my proud Dad had to hear about how much of a little brat his princess daughter was. He took the paper and later on when we stopped at a pub for dinner he took it out of his pocket, unfolded it and put it on the table in between us.
“Why did you write this Shereen?” He asked me
“I don’t know” I said with a ‘please don’t hate me, I’m so sorry, I love you look on my face
“You must know” He said “You wrote it”. “Do you think he is gay?”
“I don’t think so. I think he’s got a wife” I replied in my ‘I don’t’ know what you want me to say’ voice
“And if he was, why do you need to write it on paper?” He challenged me
“I didn’t think he was going to see it. I wrote it when I was with my friends at the back” I confessed
“So you were showing off?” My dad asked, looking at me with a half but sympathetic smile
“Yeah. I’m sorry I forgot to rip it out of my book” I pleaded
“Ok”. He said, taking the paper and folding it back up to put back in his pocket. “And what’s the lesson here Shereen?” He asked as he leant forward and stared into my adolescent eyes
“Next time rip it out of my book?” I questioned, again trying to say the right thing and not really knowing what that was
“Don’t write down bad things about people” He said “When you say something in the moment, you can apologise and take it back, but writing it on black and white is more permanent. And showing off is not a good characteristic to have Shereen”
I went silent at that point and then the memory fades. I know that what he said was so poignant that it made me think about my behaviour and why I’d decided to act that way. I wasn’t homophobic, in fact my best friend at the time was homosexual but I hadn’t thought about the words I was using in the moment. I was just trying to be the funny kid who was showing off to impress my friends.
From an early age my parents started to get me thinking about my behaviour and expected me to self-police. When I messed up they would give me the time to think about why I did what I did and then evaluate whether or not I was proud of those values I was living by. Not only did this strengthen the moral compass of myself and my brother but it made me realise that if we question ourselves then we can find out why we behave the way we do, leaving “I don’t know” as an unacceptable answer. I realise that this is not a common parenting method these days and sometimes I wonder if my parents would find it amusing to play little experiments on my brother and I, in order to enforce critical thinking. We’re both well behaved citizens so it can’t have gone too wrong.
I used this skill when I had post traumatic stress and my hyperviligant ego would cause me to react in all sorts of crazy ways. Sometimes I couldn’t reflect and question straight away but over time I started to do this quicker and when I acted in a way which may have accidentally hurt someone I would dig deep to find out why. When we act upon our fears we can attack people, often blaming them for the way we feel when really that feeling is our own to be responsible for. The more we reflect and question our behaviour, the sooner we can get to the route of it, take responsibility for it and learn the lesson from the event. The final step is the apology. Not some half-arsed ‘I’m sorry’ in a whatsapp message after you’ve cheated on someone but a real apology that adds up to the weight of the action. One that expresses remorse and is honest. One that isn’t scared to feel the shame which identifies that our behaviour conflicted with our morals. One that acknowledges the action fully and accepts all the pain caused by it.
I’m 31 now but I recently got the chance to apologise to Mr Brown. It turns out that he owns the allotment across from my Mum’s and one day last summer we bumped into him. He didn’t remember my name but recognised me face and knew that he’d taught me somewhere in his 40 year career.
“I’m sorry for being a little shit and causing you so much grief in science class” I said
“I don’t really remember that” He said back with a bemused look on his face
“Well in case it comes back to you, I’m really sorry in advance” I told him
It goes to show that no-one’s perfect and as humans we’ve always got the potential to mess up in the moment. We also always have the potential to reflect, learn and apologise too.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Simcoe