You and your spouse are driving along the highway. You begin to strongly suspect that you have missed your exit. The thought keeps nagging at you, and as more time elapses and the terrain is looking less and less familiar, the more certain you become. Yet as you begin to vociferously demand that your husband turn off the next exit, he stubbornly insists that you are headed in the right direction.
Fifteen minutes have passed. By now you both realize that you are driving on the wrong route. Yet instead of changing paths, your spouse is still hoping beyond hope that this will somehow bring you to your intended destination.
Why is he being so obstinate? Because turning around is admitting that he has made a mistake – and that’s probably the hardest thing for any human being to do.
We all have that highway scenario played out in our lives. We understand that we’re heading down the wrong path and we realize that the longer we continue, the more lost we will become. And yet we obstinately cling to our mistaken ways.
Why? Because it is so incredibly hard to admit that we’ve make a mistake.
You’ve had a disagreement with your spouse, child or coworker. It escalated to the point of ugly comments and incriminating remarks.
You know you were wrong. You know you crossed some red lines. You realize that you should never have brought his mother into the conversation, or that hapless remark he once said (and apologized for dozens of times) more than 10 years ago.
And yet you couldn’t stop yourself. As soon as you began your slippery slide into that nasty terrain of discord, there was no way to prevent plunging full force.
Now the heated moment is behind you. You know you ought to make amends, but every time it occurs to you to apologize, every fiber of your being rebels as your mind begins a full-scale line of defense. You may have been wrong, but he did say/do/act so inconsiderately. Thus, he should be apologizing!
Why remain in a bitter tug of war that is straining your relationship and distancing you further, when an apology could easily make things right? Because the hardest words to utter are, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”
Let me share a small incident. When I was traveling recently to the West Coast, a friend asked me to take a very important package to her son who was studying there. I readily agreed, packed it into my suitcase, took it along with me – and proceeded to forget all about it, schlepping it right back home with me. Only when I finally unpacked my suitcase upon my return did my heart drop, as I realized my error.
What to do now?
1. My first reaction: ignore the whole mess-up and avoid the unpleasant ramifications. But her son really did need this package. It was bound to come to the fore, and wouldn’t she be even more upset that I didn’t inform her immediately?
2. Call her and defend myself, effectively freeing me of any guilt. Explain it this way: “Hey, it was nice enough of me to agree to schlep it in the first place.” Find some way of blaming her for not anticipating this by having her son call to remind me about the package.
3. Own up to my mistake and sincerely apologize for it.
The incident was minor enough with small enough at stake that I was able to take the latter path − and truly admit to how idiotic and silly I felt for being so absent-minded. The conversation could have taken a very different turn, but instead the more I carried on about how utterly sorry I felt, the more she reassured me, “You’re only human! Please stop blaming yourself.”
But it did teach me that the more we go against our initial and natural resistance, admit to our wrong and sincerely apologize for it, the softer and more appeasing our friends, spouses, children and coworkers become. On the other hand, the more defensive or blaming we become, the more the situation spirals out of control into a full-blown war.
With minor mistakes, it is easy enough for us to own up to our wrongs. The challenge, however, takes place when it happens in more sensitive areas or in more meaningful relationships – especially when there may be traces of emotional baggage and prior feelings of hurt, resentment, or anger.
I am sorry. Three short words. Three powerful words. Three words that can prevent us from plunging deeper down the wrong path. Will we allow our egos to get in the way of steering us toward this harder, but far more rewarding, path?
Chana Weisberg is the author of several books, including Divine Whispers – Stories that Speak to the Heart and Soul and Tending the Garden: The Unique Gifts of the Jewish Woman. Watch Chana Weisberg’s two-minute videocast on www.chabad.org/intouchfor your dose of weekly inspiration. She is an international inspirational lecturer on a wide array of topics and an editor at chabad.org. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.