The apology that went viral
It’s hard to make an apology
According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ‘I am sorry’ are perhaps the three hardest words to say.
‘We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defences and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.’
The power of an apology was beautifully illustrated in the blog ‘Mindful Dad’, written by Josh Misner. This is the essence of his story.
He had just four hours sleep in three days.
His flight was delayed, leaving him and his two children just two minutes to make a connection.
The air steward asked passengers to let him and his family leave first – but her request was ignored. He left the plane last, with angry thoughts about their slowness and lack of consideration swirling around his head.
He missed his connecting flight and his frustration turned into anger.
Spotting a ticket agent, he called out, asking for help. The agent turned to see him and turned away again. His anger turned into what he described as an ‘outright grown-man tantrum’.
He shouted out again, and the agent responded with ‘sorry, I can’t help you right now’ and walked away. ‘Mindful Dad’ boiled over. He lost his temper and swore at the agent.
The agent continued walking away, but turned slightly to give a hurried piece of information.
Mindful Dad took this as further provocation.
The turning point
But as he inwardly heaped his anger onto the departing agent, he noticed his six year old son looking at him.
‘I was giving him a precedent. My childish tirade presented him with a solution to his future conflicts when dealing with difficult situations and even more difficult people.’ And it wasn’t the precedent that Mindful Dad wanted to set.
In the interval between re-booking his flight and his new departure time, he had time to reflect on how to redeem the situation. The answer was elusive. Tell his children that it was wrong to lose your temper with others when it isn’t even their fault? That didn’t capture the complexity.
But then the answer came to him.
‘I spotted the original ticket agent, who was working the desk at our gate again. I grabbed my son’s hand and said “come with me… I need you to watch and listen.’
He approached the agent at his desk. This is the conversation that transpired:
‘Sir: I don’t know whether you recognise me, but about three hours ago, I did something inappropriate. I cursed at you because you didn’t help us find a new flight after we missed our connection, and that wasn’t right. I took my frustration out on you and set a poor example for my children. I want to apologise and ask your forgiveness.’
He looked stunned and was speechless for a while… then said: ‘I don’t know what to say. I didn’t hear you use any foul language, but I do remember you. At the time, I was trying to locate a medical kit for a woman boarding her plane over at the gate next door and I was in a rush. I wanted to stop to help you, but I was in a hurry to assist the passenger over there. I’m sorry I didn’t stop to help.’
This left Mindful Dad feeling even more shame. ’You have nothing to apologise for, sir. I was in the wrong … I need … to show my son that the way I behaved was not right.’
By this time in the story, I was inwardly applauding Mindful Dad for having the courage to live out his values. But the agent’s reply demonstrated how an apology blesses both the giver and the receiver. He said:
‘… I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your apology. You didn’t need to do this. … No-one ever has – and trust me, we get yelled at a lot in this job. You just made my day and I thank you for it.’
And touched by Mindful Dad’s gesture of reconciliation, he rearranged the seating plan so that Dad and his two children could sit together and in seats with extra leg-room.
I offer the story as an illustration of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words:
‘There are times when all of us have been thoughtless, selfish or cruel. But no act is unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption. Yet, it is not easy to admit one’s wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. “I am sorry” are perhaps the three hardest words to say. We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defences and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.’
The original article went viral and came to the attention of Ron, the gate agent. This was his reply:
‘In my profession, I deal with many good and rough situations. I’ve been a gate agent for Delta for 34 years. I’ve served movie stars, politicians, presidents, little old ladies, very rich and powerful people, and average people from all around the world. This experience is one of the highlights of my career serving the traveling public.’