All apologies

What does it mean to be “sorry”? As a Canadian, I know that our greatest verbal tick isn’t “eh”, it’s “sorry” – when two Canadians bump into each other, both generally apologize. When someone suffers a tragedy, our first response is “Oh! I am so sorry!” “Sorry”, then, has two common meanings – “apology” and “condolence”. My nesting partner1 and I will sometimes say “I’m sorry(condolence)” or “I’m sorry(apology)” to be clear which we mean, to remove ambiguity between “I am sorry that you feel bad” and “I am sorry my actions resulted in you feeling bad”.

I’m interested in exploring, right now, the idea of apology. An apology is an expression of regret for one’s actions. When one messes up and does another harm, there’s a social expectation that one will provide an apology. Terms for people who cause harm and refuse to apologize tend to start with “jerk” and grow increasingly pejorative.

Which is, of course, one of the reasons for giving an apology – social expectation. One might apologize to soften the social stigma of being known as one who does others undeserved harm 2. Here, there’s a frequent clear difference between a person who apologizes because they actually feel bad about their actions, and a person who apologizes because they want out of the social pressure. The famous “non-apology” where one is “sorry if anyone was offended”, which refuses to take responsibility for the harm done by the action in question. The thing regretted in this case is the reaction to the person’s action, rather than the action itself. Consider the apologies from Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner here.

A second motivation for apologizing is to request forgiveness. “I regret that my actions caused you harm, and would like to be able to continue our relationship3.” I have heard, several times, people who have been victims of crime talking about the value of forgiveness for them. Forgiving the person who did them harm (their attacker, or the person who murdered their family member) is sometimes something that is done so that the victim can let go of the hate and anger and move on with their life. In the case of a pre-existing relationship, it may be so that the relationship can move forward without being entirely defined by the harm done.

Finally, there is the desire to be free of guilt. Much like forgiveness can be about letting go of hate and anger, apologizing can be about letting go of guilt and shame. Which is to say, apologizing because you want to feel better. This can link to forgiveness; in some cases, one wants to be forgiven to be given permission to stop feeling guilt and shame over the actions done. In other cases, the act of the apology itself can give that cathartic release. The trick here is that an apology generally needs to be offered to someone. Whether the apologizer needs forgiveness or not, I’m reminded of a bit of dialog from Buffy the Vampire Slayer;

Willow: But maybe if we talk about it, we could…

Oz: Look… I’m sorry this is hard for you. But I told you what I need.
So I can’t help feeling like the reason you want to talk is so you can
feel better about yourself. That’s not my problem.

If you’ve wronged someone, and it’s not a public issue, the first reason for apologizing isn’t relevant. If the person you’ve wronged doesn’t need to forgive you to move forward in their life, they don’t have any reason to want or need your apology. At that point, all the apology is doing is demanding permission from the person you’ve harmed to feel better about yourself.

And that’s not their problem.

Sometimes we hurt people we care about in the pursuit of our own desires, and there’s nothing to be done about it. It can’t be made right, and forgiveness is not owed. In the end, we all have to bear the burden of the sins we’ve committed until we’re crushed beneath the weight of all the ill we’ve done in the world.

1Trying out some new vocabulary here – the partner I live with.
2Leaving aside, for the moment, the definition of “undeserved harm” vs. “deserved harm” in the public eye.
3Whatever that relationship is; lovers, friends, coworkers, star-to-fan, etc.

Grace, unconventional spirituality and Leonard Cohen.

This is another old Livejournal post I’ve dredged up because I want to have my essays here.


In Christianity, the concept of grace refers to an unearned gift or blessing from God. The term is most often used in connection to salvation. While various denominations disagree on the details, the general idea is that salvation is a gift which cannot be earned; nothing that we do on earth can be good enough to earn ourselves a place in heaven. There just aren’t any good works good enough to “deserve” salvation. We start our lives in a state of sin (original sin and all that), and if we’re keeping score, nothing can get past that initial deficit.

So, then, if anyone is Saved, it is because God has decided to extend that gift even though the recipient doesn’t deserve it. By the Grace of God, a sign of god’s Love for mankind. Various denominations have differing theories on how one can screw up salvation and reject God’s Grace.

In Catholicism, one needs to go through the Church as an intermediary to receive forgiveness for one’s sins. In Calvinism, salvation is predetermined – God has picked out who is saved and who isn’t, and no amount of hard work is going to change that. If God hasn’t picked you as one of the Chosen, it’s hellfire for you. (Which then leads to antinomianism, my favourite protestant heresy, but that’s another post for another day).1

I don’t believe in Salvation, and I don’t believe in god in the sense most people use the term. Hence, my personal use of the word grace has a different spin on it. For me, grace is still connected with love, and with my own unconventional view of the divine 2. As I’ve discussed on before (in more angst-ridden posts), I feel that love is something that one cannot “deserve”, something than cannot be earned. Nothing that one does can be good enough to compel the love of another. When I match gazes with someone and see that light flash in their eyes, all the good and evil I have done in my life are like a candle against the sunrise. It’s something one can screw up, but nothing one does can make it happen.

It’s not just “Love”, though that’s part of it. The concept is tied up with elements of “love”, “ecstasy”, “joy” and to a certain extent “forgiveness”, particularly in the sense of freedom from the guilt and shame associated with things long past. Which is to say that “grace” includes, for me, letting go of one’s attachment to past traumas and allowing one’s self to fully experience the wonder of the moment.

I have a couple personal symbols that are tied up in the concept of Grace, in the idea of Love and Joy and Ecstasy as unearned gifts. The celebration of that Grace, in the myriad ecstatic experiences of life, is both a transcendent connection with the divine and an intensely human act. It’s a sense of joining with something bigger than myself 3. I feel that Grace is something I should be thankful for, and something that should be actively celebrated and shared.

When I’m in a good mood, anyway.

The Sisters of Mercy

Leonard Cohen’s song “The Sisters of Mercy” (lyrics here) is one of my favourite Cohen songs4. It’s often described as a song about prostitutes, but I’ve never been able to figure out why. Some internet research tells me that it was used as a theme for prostitutes in a movie (“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”), but as far as I can tell, nothing in the song alludes to prostitution. Wikipedia makes a terse claim that the song refers to a night Cohen spent with two women in Edmonton.

What the song describes, to me, is an experience of grace. In a time of darkness, the protagonist spends an evening of comfort and joy. The “sisters” give him a gift of “love that is graceful and green as a stem”.

The metaphoric mixing between sex, love and religion is a common theme in Cohen’s work. It’s used heavily in this song, and perhaps that’s part of why I like it so much.

When I was a confused, bitter teenager who didn’t know how to connect with people at all, I had two friends, women, from whom I learned a little bit more about how to be human. We weren’t lovers at all, but one of them introduced me to Cohen’s music, including the Sisters of Mercy. In a sense, I feel that time in my life was the beginning of the process of self-transformation that brought me where I am now.

The last verse has a tendency to echo in my head;

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.

The people I love are fantastic creatures who bring grace and wonder into my life, and make my world a better place. If they do the same for someone else, that doesn’t take away from the gifts they’ve given me, so I think it’s great if they can do the same for someone else.

There’s something there, too, about the nature of grace – the gift the protagonist receives from the women is something specific in time. His happiness, perspective or tranquility isn’t dependent on them, and so he doesn’t rely on continued actions from them to make him happy. Hence his willingness to share.

That’s the way I’ve always read the song, in any case. Both a staunch defender of the patriarchy and a 2nd wave feminist might make a case that the protagonist is using the “sisters”, taking what he wants from them and then abandoning them, giving nothing in return. The idea of women as a source of grace is certainly laden with a lot of cultural essentialist baggage, and that’s something I occasionally wonder about.

I wonder what it might sound like to hear a song written from the other point of view, the two women?

1I’m not a religious scholar, so it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong here. If I am, I’d actually like to know what I got wrong.

2 Some day I might try to explain this in writing, but today is not that day. In brief, “thou art god” and “all things are true, even false things” are starting points.

3 And also something contained entirely within myself. It’s not religion if it’s not self-contradictory.

4 My favourite would be Famous Blue Raincoat.

Batman and Arrow

I discovered, this weekend, much to my surprise, that the new show Arrow is quite watchable. It’s a sort of gritty, soap-opera friendly reboot of the Green Arrow character form DC Comics. In this version, he’s a rich kid, son of a wealthy industrialist, who is lost at sea and spends five years on a south east Asian island surviving and becoming a bad-ass.

When he gets back, he embarks on a scheme of bloody revenge against the corrupt businessmen of Starling City. It’s interesting watching the show in a post-Occupy world; Oliver Queen is a scion of the 1%, going after the 1%, theoretically on behalf of the 99%. Thus far, he is only going after the illegally evil 1%ers, though, the ones who use their money to traffic in drugs, extortion and assassination. While he’s talking about stopping the powerful from abusing their influence on those who lack it, the show stops short of having him attack the system that provides the mansion he lives in and the expensive gadgets he uses to fight crime. It will be interesting to see if the show is willing to cross that line.

B:tAS LogoI cannot help but contrast Arrow with a couple versions of Batman. My favourite version of Batman is, I think, the 90s Batman: the Animated Series. Like a lot of TV of that era (I’m thinking of Babylon 5, here), it had a lot of cheese, but also enough brilliant moments that I remember those more clearly than the cheese. Animated Bats is notable for the way the villains are written – most of the bad guys have a strong motivation, some past wrong that drove them to become criminals. In some cases, the show looks into the grey area between what Batman does (justice?) and what the bad guys do (vengeance?). In practice, though, what it boils down to is that most often, some evil rich guy screws over some poor schmuck, who cracks and puts on a costume to extract revenge, and Batman stops the villain while the rich guy walks away. The difference, when it is highlighted, between Batman and the bad guy, is that Bats isn’t willing to kill or endanger innocents. Arrow, on the CW show, is essentially a Batman: the Animated Series villain. Interesting contrast.

Christian Bale as BatmanThe more obvious and timely comparison, of course, is to the Batman of the Christopher Nolan movies. Both take a classic comic character and deliver a dark, gritty version. I think the Nolan Batman is a relatively subtle deconstruction of the idea of Batman. The Dark Knight Rises comes right out, several times, challenging the right of Bruce Wayne, child of privilege, to be the person meting out justice on his own terms. The three movies raise the question of whether or not Batman is inherently fascist, particularly using a traditional platform of inherited wealth to fund his battle. I think the biggest twist that Nolan brings to Batman, though, is making him a Dramatic Hero rather than an Iconic Hero. To paraphrase Robin D. Laws, an Iconic Hero encounters challenges, and by staying true to his Iconic Nature, defeats them while remaining unchanged. The Dramatic Hero, by contrast, is a character in a state of conflict. He encounters challenges, and is either changed by them or destroyed by them, even when he triumphs. Every Batman before has been, essentially, Iconic – even the classic Knightfall story line in the comics where Batman’s back is broken is essentially a premise threat story, where the drama is provided by putting Batman’s Iconic nature at risk before restoring it. Nolan makes Bruce Wayne into a person whose nature is changed by his experiences. The tension between his private war and the desire to move beyond the trauma of his youth define his personality, and ultimately rip Batman apart. I think Tim Burton’s Batman flirted with similar themes, but ultimately felt the need to cling to the idea of Batman.

I suspect Arrow’s Oliver Queen will prove to be Iconic as the show goes on – it’s too hard to maintain a Dramatic Hero’s arc on a show like Arrow without losing track of everything entirely. Which highlights another thing I liked about the Nolan Batman – it had a solid ending. It left things open for all sorts of followups, but really, Nolan wrapped up all of his threads. Arrow, being an episodic soap opera type TV show, will shoot for infinity, and try to find as many ways as possible to play with the premise without losing it.