Advent post: Alongside amends

A season of preparation and penance can bring us to the thought of apologies and amends. We may want to try to apologize to those we’ve hurt in the past and ask their forgiveness.

This isn’t always the best idea for a number of reasons: You may just be reopening old wounds, or you may be at a point in your relationship with the person you’ve offended where they simply can’t believe anything you say. (“Every word I say is a lie. But I really like you.”) I’ve seen many people argue that asking forgiveness is essentially asking yet another favor from the person you already hurt–you’re asking them to salve your emotional wounds, under the guise of salving theirs. I don’t in fact think this is usually true, and it’s a response which cuts off all possibility of reconciliation; but it’s true sometimes, probably more often than I’d like to think. It’s one reason I’m much better at saying I’m sorry than I am at simply not acting like a jerk next time.

And so alongside considering amends, we might consider doing something which can make us equally vulnerable to others, in a very different way: saying thank you. Specifically, thanking someone who may feel herself to be in a vulnerable position toward us, for something she did which helped us at a really low point in our own lives. This reverses the usual emotional valence of the charity relationship. The person who is used to saying–and having to say–thank you for the money, the food, the diapers, whatever, now has a chance to say graciously, “You’re welcome.”

I have a story about this, which you will have to read about in my book!, but I had a chance earlier this year to thank a homeless woman for some things she did and said which helped me a lot with a fairly humiliating problem. It genuinely shifted the balance between us. It made the obvious socioeconomic disparity between us a little gentler. It gave her a greater degree of ownership, to use what I’m sure is the wrong metaphor, of the relationship between us. Maybe “graciousness” is a better word–she was able to see herself as someone pouring abundant grace onto me, rather than putting out her hands to catch it.

You may not have a relationship which has the same unavoidably unequal socioeconomic power, but you probably do have a friend or relative whom you have helped out a lot in kind of obvious ways. Now would be a good time to thank that person for the less-obvious ways in which they have helped you.

About Eve Tushnet