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.