I overheard a snippet of a conversation today, a teenage child telling his mother about the use of the phrase "sorry, not sorry." I only overheard a tiny bit of their conversation, as I was just passing by, but just that little bit intrigued me. Certainly, at this time of year, we in the Jewish community are preoccupied with apologizing. So I was delighted to hear a teenager engaging with his parent about the lack of sincere apology implicit in this popular phrase and the problematic nature of that.
The truth is, this phrase is everywhere - and it seems that few people are concerned about its lack of sincere apology. Full disclosure: I've heard the phrase a lot and even used it a few times in the past.
There's a great song by Demi Lovato, called "Sorry Not Sorry," which was really popular when it came out, that is about the singer's refusal to be apologetic in the face of harsh criticism. It's a power anthem of self-validation. Hard to criticize that drive to stay strong and true to oneself when confronted with mean-spirited words of critique.
But the more common use of the phrase is just what it sounds like - someone couching their refusal to apologize for something in words that, at least at first, sound like an apology. And when I say common, I mean extremely common. A quick search on Facebook for #sorrynotsorry yielded 8.5 million posts. A search for the phrase without the hashtag led to listings for more groups than I could count with some version of "Sorry Not Sorry" in their group name.
Much ink has been spilled, especially in feminist spaces, about the phenomenon of over-apologizing, of robbing ourselves of our strength and confidence when interacting with others. There's even an extension for the Google Chrome browser called Just Not Sorry, which "warns you when you write emails using words which undermine your message."
But with the case of "sorry, not sorry" the issue is under-apologizing, or stridently refusing to apologize for something that may actually be worthy of our contrition. Yes, it's important not to diminish our own voices and to be aware of the potentially damaging power dynamics that over-apologizing reinforces. Full stop.
And also, it is crucially important to cultivate the skills necessary to apologize with sincerity when it is called for - not only so that we can seek repair with those we've harmed, but also so that we can develop our awareness of our own faults and mistakes. When we never truly apologize, we continuously confirm our own rightness. This deadens our sensitivity to the impact of our actions on others and keeps us in what may be a hurtful holding pattern.
The phenomenon of "sorry, not sorry" reminds me of a passage from the Mishnah about the work of Teshuvah that's required for Yom Kippur. Mishnah Yoma 8:9 teaches: With regard to one who says: I will sin and then I will repent, I will sin and I will repent, Heaven does not provide him the opportunity to repent, and he will remain a sinner all his days. With regard to one who says: I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for my sins, Yom Kippur does not atone for his sins.
This same mishnah reminds us that the rituals of Yom Kippur help us atone for sins between ourselves and God, areas of our religious or ritual life where we have not lived up to expectations. In order to effect atonement for offenses against other people, we must apologize. With our religious misdeeds, repenting with the intention of sinning again is not true repentance. The same holds with our relationships with other people. "Sorry, not sorry" just doesn't cut it. Difficult though it sometimes is to find the right words and offer those we've hurt a sincere apology, that is exactly what we must do - for Yom Kippur and year-round.
I wish you all a k'tivah vahatimah tovah - may we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!