I’m sorry. The literal translation of the Latin phrase “mea culpa” is “through my fault,” a genuine acknowledgement of one’s error or fault. The act of saying it is called an apology. Doesn’t it somehow seem a bit ironic then, that apology, a word of Greek origin, can seem so confusing and confounding? When people don’t understand something, they often say “It’s all Greek to me,” meaning that they can’t really comprehend the point. People apologize all the time – sometimes they mean it profoundly and completely, sometimes it’s a habit, and sometimes it’s done as a means to an end.
As a Catholic, you repeat an intimate expression of sorrow and apology three times during each celebration of the Eucharist. You apologize for not being worthy, beg forgiveness, and ask for mercy and another chance to get it right. And since you’re human and getting it right isn’t really ever going to happen, we Catholics have the option to confess our sins in a small, dimly lit room, utilizing another human as a conduit because we are not worthy enough to speak to the Big Guy directly. And then we do penance, and taking a page from the Jewish faith, we atone. The Jews only have to atone annually at Yom Kippur – one ginormous day of apologetics and abstinence. That wasn’t good enough for us Catholics. We apologize weekly, daily if we’re really good Catholics and believe ourselves to be bad people. I was a really good Catholic. I say, “I’m sorry” a lot. A lot.
When I say something sarcastic and snarky to my spouse or a dear friend who does not deserve the bitter slice of my sometimes caustic tongue, I apologize. When I’m sleep deprived and overworked, I sometimes find myself apologizing to my dogs and cats because the day has been too long, and I have spent far too many hours away from home working instead of telling them how precious and dear their unconditional love is to me. When I’m driving home late at night on the rain-slicked road and a frog jumps across my path and meets a tragic and untimely demise, I apologize. My mea culpa moments come often, too often. Sometimes I wonder if the number of my apologies diminishes their value. As a recovering member of the Catholic community, I like to think that they are a testament to my capacity for empathy, but as a woman who is struggling to become strong, confident, and successful, I wonder if “I’m sorry” isn’t sometimes my worst enemy – a two-faced former friend who embraces you warmly upon greeting and speaks dreadfully about you behind your back.
Sure that I was not worthy and believing every word of the prayers I recited in Mass for so many years, I married the first man who proposed. And why not? Every week I prayed that I was “not worthy to receive” the Lord and pleaded with the Almighty to, “only say the word, and I shall be healed.” Marrying the first man who asked was the best and only option for someone whose worthiness was unquestionably lacking. When, on our wedding night, he mistakenly thought I had taken his car keys because he’d been drinking too much, he threw my apology in my face like a slap, saying, “I know you’re sorry. Now apologize.” Though he later found the keys, he didn’t rescind the statement, and like a hapless juror at a criminal trial, I couldn’t un-hear the words, either. After all, the Catholic church had taught me I was unworthy, and now it was on the table, out in the open, and publicly affirmed in front of some of our closest acquaintances. I was not worthy.
From that moment, I often incorporated my unworthiness into my apologies. Perhaps it was my way of giving permission to the apology’s recipient not to accept it because of my deep and abiding unworthiness to even extend the acknowledgement of my own faults or error – not even worthy to utter the ‘mea culpa’ in the first place. I spent hours in prayer and isolation, numbed my fingers smoothing the beads of countless rosaries, asking the Virgin Mother to intervene with her son to make me worthy to live to atone my sins, Original and otherwise, for another day. Even after I escaped from the marriage which had begun with vows of love followed shortly after by that haunting, “I know you’re sorry. Now apologize!” I apologized constantly. It was as if my life’s mission was to atone for the mistake of having been born.
“I’m sorry. I know you’re busy, but I hope you’ll take a few moments to read my piece,” to editors, bosses, even letters to friends. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I wonder if you’d mind covering the dining room while I clean the vomit out of the bathroom,” to the chain-smoking, world-weary waitress at the all-night restaurant where we’d just completed working a bar rush. “I’m sorry my body isn’t the right shape for kayaking,” to a boyfriend who didn’t want to take me on a day trip with his more physically attractive friends. I spent so much of my time offering apologies that I wondered if I might simply dissolve into a murky puddle of penitence.
Others noticed. My bosses started charging me a quarter every time I apologized, and I quickly ran through a chunk of my paycheck and was able to buy drinks for the entire office and construction crew at the end of a single week of the experiment. I apologized for apologizing, and I started to question whether or not my apologies – or anyone else’s, for that matter – meant anything? What did it mean to apologize and offer atonement for one’s sins? Why did some of us seem to apologize for everything, including being born, while others skated through life, knocking others down physically, verbally, and emotionally, and never considering or being expected to offer a simple, heartfelt ‘mea culpa’?
I wish I could tell you that I found an answer and found a way to strike “I’m sorry” from my own vocabulary. I haven’t. I still catch myself daily, sometimes several times a day, apologizing for my actions or words when I feel I’ve hurt another human. I still bless myself unconsciously and say a prayer when a mouse skitters across the road late at night, and I can’t avoid the inevitable and small thud under my tires. And I still question myself the moment the apology has left my lips because I don’t want to say something I truly don’t mean.
What I have come to believe about apologies though, through all my searching, is that they are a direct result of shame. All of those years of the litany of apologies and asking God for mercy, while singing about His abundant mercy in the very next breath, have made me think. Am I the only Catholic in the world who really believed that I was unworthy? How is it that I was born in the generation that believed we had something for which to apologize instead of in the generation after mine, which was taught that they were born worthy and deserved a medal for just showing up? Does anyone really believe it when they offer an apology?
From Jimmy Swaggart and James and Tammy Faye Bakker to Jon Edwards and Carlos Danger, are those tearful apologies and masterful mea culpas really anything besides high drama and great public relations? Is anyone else as serious about their apologies as me? At the mall or in the halls, I hear schoolchildren mock one another or make an unkind remark that is quickly followed by, “Just kidding.” But like the apologies from so many, famous and otherwise, I don’t believe them and find their “just kidding” to be as insincere and shallow as a birdbath in a summer drought. For me, every apology is as genuine and real as the offense that precipitated it, whether it was intentional or not.
Survivors of both Catholicism and Judaism have both long believed that their particular religious persuasion (by birth or by choice) is the one most completely steeped in guilt and penitence, but in the end, what does it really matter? Does it matter who is more apologetic and can a measure be put on the merit of one’s mea culpa? For me, this is as unimportant as whether one generation is more apologetic than another. Questioning who experiences more shame and guilt is as unproductive as proclaiming publicly my unworthiness to a God I wasn’t even sure existed was throughout my youth. Is that what unconditional love is all about, or is that a testament to the depth of true faith? Is it the apology that matters or the penitence and effort to make good on the promise to live with more kindness and empathy? Is an apology really “Greek” to the generation we call the Millenials who are instead “just kidding”, and is that something for which my generation should be uttering a genuine and heartfelt “mea culpa”? I’m sorry. I wish I knew the answer.