Is It Too Late Now To Say Sorry?

“Bill looked at Dave. He seemed so happy stringing his pebbles together. “Hey Dave,” Bill whispered, “I’m sorry I hit your mom over the head with my club. I really did think that she was a woolly mammoth.” “Are you kidding, Bill?” Dave exclaimed. He looked up from his beads. “Don’t apologize. I’ve done that myself once” he paused. “…or twice.””

– Excerpt from Life of Dave, Caveman Extraordinaire

Life is complicated, and the material world is ephemeral. Sometimes, you don’t update your blog for five long months. Sometimes, you accidentally listen to a catchy Justin Bieber song, and it haunts you for weeks. Sometimes, you hit a friend’s mother with a wooden club. Things happen.

If there’s one constant, however, it would be this: apologies.

Apologies have been around forever. They are, quite literally, the oldest trick in the book. According to Psychology Today’s interpretation (psychoanalysis?) of the Talmud – the holy book of Rabbinic Judaism – God created repentance before He created the universe. This tells us two significant things:

  1. We probably shouldn’t let Psychology Today near any more holy books.
  2. We were born sorry.

And it’s not just Rabbinic Judaism. Several major faiths are founded on the idea of the apology. Forgiveness. Absolution. Sitting in a small dark room, confessing all your sins to someone you can’t see (which also happens surprisingly often on Friday nights in college dorms). And if you’re an atheist, there’s something in here for you too – guilty consciences are thought to have evolved from social instincts. Just think about it: what sort of world would we be living in if no one ever said the word “sorry”?

A world full of meanies.

What also matters is how you say it. Today, as I struggle to word my perfect apology, I shake my fist and curse my favorite cavemen, Dave and Bill. Damn you, Dave and Bill. You had it so easy. In my world, if you want to get your apology noticed, you have to write it in giant letters across the sky. Or you have to be an annoying Canadian child with floppy hair and write a Number 1 Hit with a music video featuring twerking women. Or you have to buy, like, a present or something. As if global warming isn’t stressful enough.

It was easier when I was kid. I’ve always been a very apologetic person, aided by the fact that I probably did a lot of things that required copious amounts of apologizing. Exhibit A:

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But now that I am a raucous youth freed from the protective helmet of childhood, I am not permitted to be mainstream. A poetically simple “Sorry, dude”, as it turns out, is *scoffs* formulaic. And unlike most things, I’m not even making this up. According to linguist AJ Meier, “The most frequently occurring apology strategy has generally been found to be a formulaic expression of apology (i.e., an expression containing apologize, sorry, forgive, excuse, pardon).” Well, I’m no expert, but this may be because it’s hard to say sorry without actually, well, saying sorry.

To dissect this further, I conducted my own extensive research, and I have discovered that a successful apology consists of three parts:

  1. “You were right”: Acknowledgement of the object’s superiority and the subject’s current state of vulnerability.
  2. “I was dumb”: Acknowledgement of the fact that what the subject did was inexcusable and cannot be justified.
  3. “Sorry”: The operative; conclusive.

Of course, this is just a template, and although it is very scientific and well-researched and generally excellent, there are few exceptions. For example, #2 doesn’t apply to some countries in the African continent, where people apologize for all and any unfortunate things that happen to you, even if it happened through no fault of their own. For instance, if you trip over your own foot, you would hear a chorus of “I’m sorry”. Likewise, the Japanese have 20 different ways of apologizing, and probably have a much more complex system of sorries, corrected to 52 decimal places. But regardless of complexity or culture, you can’t have an apology without an apology.

Or so I thought.

There’s this guy called Plato. Funny beard, kind of annoying; maybe you’ve heard of him. Many years ago, Plato wrote a book called Apology. I found out about it some months ago, when I discovered that it was a reading for a Plato-centric course. After three months of reading things like, “I don’t think that you’re unfortunate – I know you are” and “Man is a two-legged animal without feathers”, I was thrilled to see “Plato’s Apology” at the end of the reading list. So pompous li’l Smarty McFancypants was finally going to apologize for the hell he put us through. About time, chump.

I was wrong.

  1. The word “sorry” does not appear even once in the entire text.
  2. In fact, it’s 9000 words of the worst apology ever.
  3. A quote: “Now please, men of Athens, do not make a disturbance, not even if I seem to you to be boasting somewhat.” – Plato. (read: somewhat)
  4. Another quote: “I am wise.” – Plato

I had almost convinced myself that Plato was an ancestor of Kanye West, when I realized something groundbreaking: the word “apology”, in ancient Greek, is “apologia” – which means “a speech made in defense of”. This is basically the opposite of an apology. Plato wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to defend himself, and his main ho Socrates.

Clearly, Plato isn’t going to be of any help to my perfect apology. Not like he’s ever of any help anyway.

It’s comforting to know, however, that apologies have evolved from an ancient Greek word that means something quite different, to become the harbingers of modern human civilization. They started out as not being apologies as we know them, and today they have found an integral place in the world’s major religions, in our daily lives and conversational vocabulary, and most importantly, in a Justin Bieber song. There’s an inspirational message in there somewhere.

And so, enkindled by the imperfection of the apology as a construct, I’m going to apologize the only way I know how.

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Will you?

A Heretic’s Guide to Psychology

I have been studying psychology for about a year and a half now. I’ve learnt some wonderful stuff. I’ve learnt that an evil but tiny little region in the brain with a double-barrelled first name – the supra-chiasmatic nucleus – is responsible for my desire to sleep in, every morning. I’ve learnt that, contrary to my beliefs, you can’t always believe what you (think you) see. I’ve learnt that researchers named Metalski and Alloy can work together on countless research papers and not realize the irony.

Most importantly, however, I’ve learnt about how misinformed people are about the subject.

Psychology is widely perceived to be this mystical discipline wherein people learn how to read minds, hypnotize hapless insomniacs and then sacrifice the sheep that they count in their dreams for the ghost of Freud’s mother, who was, of course, awakened through a séance.

Unfortunately, that already exists. It’s called Scientology.

The very first reason I can proffer as to why psychology is used to label anything that is even slightly inexplicable is that humans, as a species, tend to conflate words which begin with the same letters. That itself is inexplicable enough to be deemed worthy of a psychological explanation. This is why ‘psychology’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘psychic’ and why ‘heretics’ (said in an accusatory tone, preferably with a pointed finger) is often seen by the uninitiated as a portmanteau of ‘heredity’ and ‘genetics’.

Strangely enough, Kim Kardashian is not mistaken for Kimchi – a Korean dish which Wikipedia describes as “spicy and sour, with a notoriously offensive odor” (I promise I didn’t write that page myself).

Anyway, the confounding of ‘psychic’ and ‘psychology’ is worrying. It means that a disturbingly large proportion of the population believes that thousands of students enter universities each year to intensively study clairvoyance, telekinesis and aura-reading. Hasn’t anyone realized that if this were true, we’d have 90,000 X-Men graduating every year? The world would be in safe hands (or rather, minds).

I’ll admit, there are a significant number of people who realize that ‘ology’ is very different from ‘ic’ and agree that all psychologists do not moonlight as Professor Charles Xaviers. But even amongst these benevolent souls, very few refer to it as a ‘science’, and those who do, do so rather grudgingly. Most people insist on prefixing it with ‘human’, or much worse, with ‘pseudo’.

Pseudo-sciences are sciences which aren’t really sciences (hence the ‘pseudo’). They were only called sciences because they vaguely involved some numbers and everything becomes more believable if you add the word ‘science’ into the fray. Examples of pseudo-sciences are crystal healing, ghost busting and Simon Cowell’s X-Factor selection process.

People’s arguments for classifying psychology as a pseudo-science are amongst the most baseless I’ve seen. Apparently “real” sciences involve the study of matter. This is basically saying that the entire realm of science is, in fact, physics.

The same people also claim that psychology’s shady dealings with the conscious and unconscious lend it an air of disrepute. As evidence for this, they cite ‘dream-deciphering’ and ‘Jung’ (which, more often than not, they pronounce incorrectly, but that’s a peeve to deal with another day). To these people, I’d like to say four things:

1. That is called psychoanalysis. It is not to be mistaken with psychology, again, just because it starts with the word ‘psych’.

2. Freud and Jung were like the only guys who tried to make psychoanalysis a part of psychology (and didn’t succeed, by the way). Jeez. This is like not eating your birthday cake just because your name’s spelt wrong on the top. Cut us some slack (and a piece of cake, please).

3. Look up psychophysics.

4. If you still don’t agree, keep an open mind and allow me to demonstrate the real meaning of ‘unconscious’.

And while we’re arguing like this about whether or not psychology should be classified as a science, some other subjects have just sneaked past us and made it across the border with no struggle at all. Quantum mechanics, for example, tries to explain immortality. Yet we choose to ignore this blasphemy simply because it has a lot of complicated-looking numbers and formulae that nobody understands. And what about molecular gastronomy? Well, it involves food and Heston Blumenthal, so it can be whatever it wants.

I’d like to clarify that I love quantum mechanics and molecular gastronomy, but sometimes, they just rub it in too much.

Another thing that irks me is the fear with which psychology is regarded. Ask any psychology student to note down people’s responses to the question, “Will you participate in a psychology experiment?” I guarantee that the answer will always be a nervous (and perhaps squeaky) “You want to experiment on me?” This, for some reason, draws up vivid images of Victor Frankenstein working on his Creature, or of scary men in surgical masks tickling the underbellies of guinea pigs. Or maybe that’s just me.

To conclude: I hope that my sales pitch for this discriminated-against discipline will succeed in convincing the St. Peters at the Pearly (and Scientifically-Designed For Minimum Seepage) Gates to let psychology through.

But if you don’t, it’s okay, we don’t need you anyway. We have pyrokinesis to deal with the hell-fire.