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There are two kinds of apologies.
There’s the voluntary kind, the kind that involves a specific offense and a genuine acknowledgment of wrongdoing. “Sorry!” I say when I’m irresponsible, when I’m cruel, when I do something I regret and I want you to know that I regret it.
There’s also the involuntary kind, the kind that bursts out in panicky self-condemnation before charges are ever laid. “Sorry!” I beg when I’m nervous, when I’m confused, when I’m not quite sure what I did wrong but I’m terrified of being punished for it.
I’ve always known that I apologize a lot. Frankly, I apologize all day long. Sometimes, the words are voluntary. Often, they are involuntary. Always, they bring a combination of relief and shame. After all, an apology—genuine or not—is a plea for forgiveness. It is supplication. It is abasement.
I come to terms with this suddenly, accidentally, aboard a Swan Boat in the middle of the Boston Lagoon.
It is a pearly grey afternoon. From where I stand on the muddy shore, I can hear faint strains of a faraway jazz festival. The lagoon is dotted with half a dozen Swan Boats curving lazy laps around its perimeter. The boats are beautiful in their tackiness: They float on pairs of green pontoons, and forward motion seems to be powered exclusively by employees pedaling within giant plastic swans. Sightseers lean back on benches beneath broad green- and white-striped awnings.
After a short period of time, the nearest boat completes its lap and pulls up to the shore. Tourists stream on and off. I start towards the loading area, but stop next to the ticket booth.
The new boat looks a little full. It’s not completely full—I could certainly find a seat—but I’d have to ask someone to slide further down a bench. I step forward to buy a ticket, then step back.
As I fidget, a young couple buys tickets and approaches the boat. An attendant organizes everyone and clears a bench for the couple. The boat pushes off from the shore. The crowd now gone, the attendant turns and looks at me, clearly confused. I pretend to see something fascinating across the water.
When the next boat approaches fifteen minutes later, I am at the front of the line—a fact which becomes irrelevant when the attendant waves everyone into a loose mob at the edge of the dock. A little tense, I step forward to claim the first bench.
I am beaten out, however, by a group of four older men who slide in ahead of me. One, a balding fellow in hipster glasses, looks back apologetically.
I am embarrassed that I’ve made him embarrassed. “Sorry,” I mumble.
His face relaxes. “It’s OK,” he allows.
I end up with a seat on the end of the third row. The view is excellent and I have the entire row to myself, so it should be a great seat. Unfortunately, it is sticky with the residue of my guilt. The substance crawls tacky across my skin and pools heavy in my gut.
Usually, I tolerate the experience. After all, doing wrong demands making right; misconduct demands penance. Today, though, my guilt feels alien, and I cannot pin down the specifics of my offense. When I replay the situation, I realize why.
Before I apologized, Hipster Man was the guilty party. Sure, the fault was minor—an unintentional aggression; a miniscule distinction—but it was indubitably his. But the moment I apologized, that changed. I watched absolution play across his face; I felt condemnation sweep across mine. My apology made his transgression my own.
Post-conflict, sitting on my excellent Swan Boat real estate, I feel that transgression filling my body. I am suddenly aware that, without making a conscious decision to do so, I have squeezed myself into the furthest corner of the bench. My legs are crossed. My arms are pressed tightly to my side. Every inch of my posture screams apology.
The products of this incident are unimportant. It doesn’t matter that I took responsibility for a goofy situation. It doesn’t matter that Hipster Man claimed the better seat. It doesn’t matter that I wedged myself against a railing when I had an entire bench. The details of the apology don’t matter.
But the origins of the apology do. Why do I apologize? Why do I concede? Why is it my reflex to assume that I am sitting on someone else’s bench?
I can’t decide which element of my identity is most to blame.
It might be my status as a woman, and the years I’ve spent with the conditioned knowledge that the only thing worse than being a pushover is being a bitch.
It might be my roots as a Canadian, and the combined effect of every “polite,” “easy-going,” “not-to-be-taken-seriously” stereotype I’ve come to embrace as compulsorily my own.
It might be my generation as a Millennial, my future as a humanities concentrator, my past as a dorky “smart girl’ at a public high school.
It must be some combination of all of these things, because I’m certainly not encapsulated by any single one. And somehow they’ve combined to produce some kind of eternal guilt trip, some kind of whispery internal voice that tells me incessantly to take up less space.
I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, I suspect that a lot of us fall to the back of the line. I suspect that a lot of us squeeze into our seats. I suspect that a lot of us are too often sorry.
I look at the back of Hipster Man’s head. He is peaceful. I turn my head and look down the length of the red metal bench. It is empty. I straighten my back, plant my feet a little further apart, and use more of my bench.
I feel powerful—and not sorry at all.
Laura E. Hatt ’18 is an English concentrator living in Kirkland House.
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