Everybody knows a non-apology when they see one. The apology with the fine print that's not so fine: "Sorry about that, but listen while I explain that I have no obligation to you..." We resent the social pressure to apologize, and in our resentment, we turn to justifying and rationalizing, as a means of pre-emptive self-defense. This turns so many apologies into hollow rituals, which do nothing for either the giver or the receiver. The receiver hears little but the justification; the giver is bewildered that the ritual does not produce forgiveness -- and deep down, I think givers of non-apologies often sense how little they have offered. Humans aren't dumb, but we form habits. And so we go on, turning the crank on an endless cycle of abuse.
Some of us see this impulse in ourselves, some of us fight it, and sometimes we overcome it. I don't think it's easy to consistently produce a real and valuable apology when I screw up, and I don't assume it's easy for anyone else either. It's even harder to apologize for my sins of omission of action, which are many. But this is an important part of my project to become a better person. Real apologies, unencumbered by justification, can heal relationships and communities when they are wounded. I want healthy relationships and communities. Managing my impulses in realtime may be complicated, but knowing after the fact which choice was better is pretty simple.
In the realm of action, the surly twin sibling of sorry-not-sorry is help-not-help. Help with strings attached; help only for those who can prove their need and their worthiness, and are properly thankful, and will never ask again. One root of help-not-help is resentment at social pressure to help others, and fear that an act of help might grow into an obligation. Another root is our desire to make things transactional: we want something in return, and one of the things we want is affirmation that our own sense of material security is justified.
Whatever the exact motivation, the result is an awful lot of making people in need of help jump through hoops as a condition of receiving it. Whether it's someone asking for money on the street, or a family showing up at a homeless shelter, or somoene receiving disability or welfare money, or millions of people struggling to survive on an island that has been wrecked by a storm, we want them to show us why they deserve it -- not just that, but *prove* that they're not undeserving. And on top of this judgmental approach, we prefer the process of receiving help to be onerous enough that people would do pretty much anything to avoid needing it.
I say "we", because while many of us want to do better, that's all we can manage to do, as a country. Need is shame; help is grudging; and being an American means never having to say you're sorry. Nothing could be worse than accidentally helping someone who turns out to be an ordinary human, with virtues and vices just like the rest of us.
I believe that America has had moments of greatness, flashes of greatness, and has always had the potential for more. But we're not heading for greatness right now. We're heading straight for that flaming dumpster of empires who had their moments and then were burned to ash. Every one of them was prodded into the fire by small men who seemed great for a time, exploiting fear, greed, and prejudice, promising greatness, but who delivered calamity instead.
When we justify, dismiss, and hedge in the face of inequality, and in the sight of wrongs that we do to each other and the world, we become less. When we take responsibility for our actions, and for the actions of institutions that benefit us, we become so much more.
When we grasp for excuses to ignore the need and the trapped potential around us, America fades away. When we find reasons to reach out and help people, and free ourselves from the shackles of judgment and indifference, we reach for greatness.
Our American calamity is here, and it will get worse. One thing we can all agree on is that it's gut-check time, time to find out what this country is truly made of. Is America a country of small men pretending to be great, or a country where strangers help each other out without a second thought?
We can't be both. One of these answers leads to ruin. The other leads to survival, and it could make America great again.