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.”


About The Author


Kendraspondence is the personal mischief of Kendra Stanton Lee.
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