In the news today is a story about a North Carolina woman who decided, after 25 years, to return a fragment from a Roman ruin that she'd pilfered on a trip to Italy. She said that the chunk of terracotta had sat on her shelf for years, and she felt guilty every time she looked at it -- doubly so when she read of the damage that souvenir-seeking tourists cause to important archeological sites.
This got me to thinking about the value of belated apologies. To be sure, this situation had caused no one any decades-long angst -- no one knew the piece had been stolen until it was returned. What, however, if the crime, sin, or offense did cause anger, grief, or emotional trauma? Is it right to dig up buried pain, expose it to the air again, make old wounds bleed? Does it do more harm than good?
This is the underlying theme of the 1990 film Flatliners, in which a group of medical students submit voluntarily to a procedure which has the unfortunate side effect of making the sins of their past come (literally) to life. One character in particular, the one played by Kevin Bacon, is so haunted by his memories of tormenting a young African-American girl when he was in elementary school that he finds her (now a successful woman with a family) and apologizes for what he did. In the movie, the woman first denies that it had had any effects on her (in fact, initially she denies even remembering), then rebuffs his attempts as a selfish means for assuaging his conscience, but finally she accepts his remorse and thanks him for apologizing.
I wonder, in real life, if such attempts would be so successful. I suspect we all have things in our past for which we'd like to have a "redo" button, and failing that, for which we'd like to have the opportunity to make amends. There have been several well-publicized cases in which people who committed crimes decades ago have been arrested and jailed -- the most famous being Kathleen Ann Soliah, who as part of the terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s had participated in a bank robbery in which a woman was shot to death. Soliah had lived for thirty years as a respectable housewife in Minnesota before the law caught up with her. It remains to be seen if thirty years of honorable contribution to her community counterbalances participation in a crime, but Soliah didn't argue the point. When arrested, she apologized to her victim's family, and stated that the jail term she received was no more than she deserved.
I have no such flashy crimes in my past, nor any so serious. My sins are mostly of the petty variety -- hurting others with words and deeds, being uncharitable, being sarcastic and downright mean to people weaker than I was. I know there are more than just one or two people to whom I owe a heartfelt apology. But toward what end? Making me feel better about my angry and unhappy teenage years? Allowing the victim, assuming they even remember the incident, to come to terms with what I did? Probably both.
And I put in the part about "remembering the incident" deliberately. A few months ago, a high school friend of mine who has relinked to me on Facebook apologized for throwing a book at me in chemistry class, an event that even with his prompt I have no memory of whatsoever. (Maybe the book knocked me senseless, I dunno.) Of course I accepted his apology readily, given that he felt so abject about it (he said it had bothered him all this time) and also how little it apparently had affected me. But it does make me wonder how many of the offenses that I remember vividly, and with shame, have made no impact on the victim at all.
That, of course, may be partly wishful thinking. I have more than once wanted to look up the addresses of the people I've wronged, and tell them how sorry I am for having treated them badly. I wonder greatly how they'd react; what would I do if the person said, "you were a complete bastard to me, and I will never forgive you, not if I live to 100?" What if they said, "you hurt me so badly that I've never trusted anyone again?" I can hope that my offenses haven't been that serious, but the incident with the chemistry book illustrates that an event that makes no impact on one person can have deep and long-lasting effects on another. The sad fact is that I cannot know how these inhabitants of my distant past would react, unless I were to follow through and do it.
And honestly, what is holding me back is fear. It's not shame, or at least not in the greater part; I can face the fact that years ago, I really wasn't a very nice person (and, I'm afraid, I still have that capacity, when sufficiently provoked). What is harder for me is the thought that I'd face down that fear, confront the individual, and then be rebuffed, or (worse) be told that my apology had done nothing but exacerbate the damage.
I know it's cowardly. It is probably also a rationalization of that fear to state that unlike revenge, apologies are a poor meal when served cold. But unless an opportunity suddenly arises, as it did with my high school chum, the sad fact is that I probably will never apologize to the people I wronged all those years ago.