My scoutmaster shared a demonstration with our Scouts yesterday to help them understand how apologies work. He had each of us hammer a nail into a piece of wood, then pull it out. The wood represented a friend; the nails, the hurtful things we sometimes say and do to others. Pulling the nail from the wood represented the apology.
But the brilliance of his demonstration came after the apology, when he showed the Scouts the hole remaining in the wood. Even after the apology, some of the hurt remained. And there’s very little we can do to repair it.
Because even after we apologize, even after we tell our friends how sorry we are, even after we do something to show our contrition, the memory of what we did remains. A sincere apology helps with the worst of the pain, but it can’t change the fact that we caused the pain in the first place.
(An insincere apology is a little bit like hammering the nail down: it may not be sticking out, catching on everything, but it’s still there. And you probably did more damage beating it down than you would have pulling it out. It’s probably better, more courageous, to stand by your words and not apologize at all than to offer words you don’t feel.)
The end result of the demonstration was a board with no nails in it, but a dozen or more holes. Which is the way most of us go through life, doing the best we can to hide our wounds, pretending all is well while we do the best we can to keep anybody else from driving their nails into us.
And sometimes, the nails that remain, the ones sticking halfway out of our souls, snag someone else and tear holes in them. And it’s our turn to apologize, if we have the courage. Most of the time, our friend accepts the apology, and we can pull the nail out and do what we can to keep the hole we created as small as possible. Some of the time, our friend chooses to forgive, and they close the hole themselves. And sometimes, if they have enough nails in them, whether they’re ours or someone else’s–they’ll grab the nail and hold onto it, refusing to let us pull it out whatever we try. Some prefer the wound that is to the healing that could be.
Nothing we say or do can heal the hurt we cause someone else. Only they can do that, if they choose. But we can at least try to pull the nail out.