Sorry Not Sorry: On apologies and boundaries

I’ve seen my students punctuate tweets and statuses with a phrase, often in hashtag form, over and over: “Sorry not sorry.” It’s an anthem of their generation. The unrepentant declaration always bristled me. I’m not sorry. Ergo, I’m not apologizing. But I also get it–they’re staking their claim for feeling the way they feel, even in the face of elders who’ve raised them to be more mannerly, puppeteering their sorries when they really were not very sorry at all.

Photographic postcard of ventriloquist Alan Stainer of 'The Gaieties'.

What about when we really are sorry? What is required of us when we truly are sorry?

As a teacher, apologies are one of the currencies I am supposed to accept in the barter system of assignments and grades.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t complete this assignment in time. Technology conspired against me.”
“I’m sorry for being late for class today. My roommate turned off my alarm by accident.”
“I’m sorry I was not able to come to class today–I was feeling under the weather.”

I know there is a sincere sorrow in {some of} the sorries I receive. I know it does not benefit me to judge the sincerity of {any of} them. What is sorrow for something done in error if there is no repentance, though? What worth does an apology have that simply observes a custom of niceties?

Our tenant gives us a Christmas card. He apologizes that there’s no envelope. He apologizes in the card for all the noise. But he’s a musician. How can he not generate noise and how can he truly be sorry for the noise? He does not want to repent of noise–it’s his job, his identity. He still feels sorrow for the ways in which the noise affects us and the hours, decibals that it reaches us.

In this instance, I realize it is possible to hold two truths, one in each hand, and for neither to eclipse the other.

In one hand, he holds sorrow for causing us irritation.
In the other hand, he holds an unrepentant love of making his music.


This last school year, the personal theme that has emerged for me is BOUNDARIES. How I don’t have them, how I need them, how I’m afraid of instituting them, how ultimately I’m so mad at everyone because of my failure to embrace them. How I’m going to die if I don’t learn how to nail them.

Ahem. So yeah. That’s been my area of interest.

Like most hard-wired people pleasers, I have been learning to let the smallest biggest word to emerge from my mouth (it’s spelled N-O) while my neck cranks back and forth in synchronicity. I’ve got a long history of saying YES while on the inside the feelings were rioting and the heart was launching an OCCUPY NO movement and my hands got clammy and my sleep vanished as I lived in dread of the things to which I said yes, sure thing, you got it, you bet, you can count on me, YES – party of one.

I just felt so much guilt in the saying no, initially. So I said, Sure, Friend, you can sift through my closet. Then I got mad when she took all my clothes. I said, Okay, Teens from the youth group–y’all can sleep over in my dorm room. Then I got mad because I was sick for the rest of the weekend and got nothing done. I said, Hey, why don’t you come over to my house and cry at my kitchen table when you’re sad. Then I got mad when she wanted me to be her therapist.

Zweefduik / Swallow dive

It was all so virtuous, the reasons I said yes, initially. Jesus shouldered the weight of the world, surely I could sign up for one meal train. Even though my kids never see me cooking during the school year. Even though I sit down to a bowl of cereal most nights. I can ferry over a casserole to the church member who just had a new baby.

If you really examine Christ’s behavior in the height of His ministry, though, the Savior of the world had boundaries. He retreated. He made specific requests of other people. He delegated jobs to a bunch of knuckleheads even though He knew they lacked faith to even see them through to completion. He didn’t get mad that He said Yes to living in a broken world, even though He knew how it would all end.

I started to awaken to this once I saw that Brene Brown video that should be required for all people-pleasers and those in recovery from people-pleasing. She says she learned about boundaries only after she turned 35. Oh look. I’m 35. Maybe that’s why they don’t let you run for President until now in the hopes that you’ve learned about boundaries. Dr. Brown says that once she learned about setting boundaries, she became less nice and more loving. I absolutely want that to be my legacy. Not to be remembered for being nice. Niceness is the sugar in lemonade that hides the sour, niceness is a smile that fades. Love is enduring and infinite and we have more of it to pour out into the people who need it and who matter when we identify and stand firm on the boundaries in the rest of our life where we can only offer cups of sugar for their sour pitchers of lemonade.

I am learning ever so clumsily to hold the two truths at once, out in front to a world that wants me to choose only one. I’m learning the art of being sorry I can’t say yes, but also not sorry that I’m saying no. I’ve learned to say, “I’m sorry–I wish I could.” I’ve learned to say, “But I can’t.”

You can hashtag that “Sorry now, not sorry later.”


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A letter to the Kendrinthians


I finally recycled the Christmas cards from last year. The first one in our mailbox, like a mechanical cuckoo busting out of its hatch, gave me permission.

As I dropped the pile of cards that had been hanging like its own bunting banner in our kitchen for a full year, the arms of two places reached and held me for a moment. It was liminal. Liminal meaning the way one can occupy two places at once, on the edges of both places. I was moving from the last year’s place of assurance to this year’s unknowns. Last year we were well-remembered and well-loved. This year, we hope it is the same or better.

It’s just paper, Kendra. It’s paper and humble-brag and holly. But it’s more than a steady stream of smile grams and glossy postcards. It’s a letter to the Kendrinthians. It’s trust that the tide will rush back in this month. It’s believing that the smiles by mail will say, We remembered you. Here is a new way to remember us in your mind’s eye, with our rad plaids and dandy bowties.


I have only learned how to be a good friend in recent years. Embarrassingly recent. I’ve been surrounded by a big family and endless acquaintances for my entire life. I’ve faked extroversion and gushed over connections and given salutatorian addresses to loud applause.  All the while I’ve been lonely as hell. I stood behind the Dairy Queen counter and customers told me not to smile so much. I went home and wore out my Tori Amos “Little Earthquakes” cassette and soaked my pillow with salty tears. There are places worn thin in my girlhood bedroom carpet, wear I knelt in the sad Boo Radley isolation that only a melodramatic teen could ever maintain. I’ve been surrounded and smother-hugged and had to pull away to get some air. For years.

I hadn’t learned to embrace the good within yet. How could I let myself be embraced from without?


It took learning that He is Goodness and He abides in me to change the tide. Once I realized that a holy portion of Goodness rocks it on my insides, what was there not to love? It’s not self-love–it’s a love of a Creator who occupies broken vessels and fills in the gaps with an adhesive that is stronger than any force I know, which has flooded me to overflowing. It has been liminal space. Realizing the love that was within me was also the love I have to give. Realizing always that I am at the edge of a love so great, it can overflow without doing damage. The love spills out and for maybe the last seven years, I’ve learned to be the kind of good-ass friend I would want. In turn, I have been blessed and highly favored by good-ass friends. I’m grateful and wealthy indeed.


I’m wishing a dear lady a happy birthday today. You taught me that kindness is a prettier dress than judgypants. I thank you. 

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Multi-cultural Monday: Holidays + Disappointments

The first in a series on multi-cultural marriage/family

It wasn’t until I joined an online group of multi-cultural families that I realized I wasn’t alone. The pain I was harboring over holidays in my multi-cultural marriage was not isolated. So many marriages and families, whether they identify as multi-cultural or not, struggle especially around the holidays to incorporate traditions or build new ones that bring meaning to their lives. This is my experience in mourning and reinventing the holidays in a way that works for our family.

I was a new bride. It was our first Christmas together with my husband’s family. There wasn’t a Christmas tree at my in-law’s house much less a trace of holly. There wasn’t anything that qualified as a Christmas cookie or really anything sweet in supply. Presents weren’t a big deal, nor was having a decorative manger or singing Christmas carols or gathering with a big group of family and friends. These were the accoutrements of a holiday that I had come to love and look forward to with my own biological family, in spite of the pain of divorce and the loss of family members that had placed a strain on the holiday in the past.

My mother-in-law and me, riding to a Korean new year celebration at their church.
My mother-in-law and me, riding to a Korean new year celebration at their church.

We sat, my in-laws, my husband and me, on the floor of their living room on Christmas night, watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I went to get the pint of ice cream I had bought at CVS. I served a bowl to my father-in-law. “Why I can’t understand they talking?” asked my mother-in-law as she tried to follow the movie. “Because it’s pirate talk,” my husband explained. Why can’t I understand this Christmas, I thought. I feel like pirates have jacked my white Christmas. *** My in-laws immigrated from Korea to Canada in the late 1970s. Christmas in their post-war Korea was not about decorating or consumption. It was, like the rest of life, about survival. In my in-laws’ faith tradition, to which I had converted, Christmas is celebrated but not not as a “high holiday” as in other traditions. They were just happy to have their children home and to eat well and celebrate blessings.

The Lees and a Lee-to-Be***
I was angry, and I didn’t want to feel angry at Christmas, I told my husband. As a fixer, my husband asked me what I needed. (What I needed was an attitude adjustment, plain and simple, but I wasn’t ready to see that yet.) I wanted a tree and lights or just some simple marker that this was Christmas, I said. wreath.kendy.jpg

But of course, it wasn’t really about the tree. It wasn’t about the cookies or lights. It wasn’t about watching incomprehensible pirate movies on Christmas.

I just wanted to feel that I had not given up all of my traditions in order to be a part of this new family. 

I think a lot of us feel this way, even if our marriages/families are not cross-cultural. The totems, the traditions, the reminders of from whence we come are important to us. It’s not our job to impose these on others, but we get to bring strands and sprinkles of them into our new family. It’s our job to do so. Frustrating though it may be, it’s not our spouse’s job to know what tradition is important to maintain if we don’t share this with them, explain why it matters, and be willing to help institute it.

After ten years of marriage, my husband and I start thinking about the holidays, especially Christmas, around this time so we can look forward with anticipation rather than dread. We plan activities we can do with my in-laws, we think about the presents we’ll buy or the acts of service we can coordinate with our church to bring more cheer to the season. The goal is not to do a museum installation of my childhood Christmas at my in-laws’ house. The goal is to incorporate threads of my traditions with new moments that bring meaning to our family time which is a big fat Korean-Irish-Italian blessing in itself.

And you? Have you blended your childhood traditions with new ones in your marriage/family?

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