Saturday, October 27, 2007

Promises and Apologies

Paraphrased from Promise - noun.

1. a declaration that something will or will not be done, given, etc., by one.
She said “I know we had plans for Saturday, but Valerie has come all the way in from Montreal and she even bought a ticket for her cello on the train and I’d promised that I’d make the time whenever she made it back to Toronto…”

2. an express assurance on which expectation is to be based

She told me “Karla was in such a state after the rehearsal that I had to promise to lead her warm-ups backstage for both performances, so our plans are shot. Sorry. I'll have to go to the wrap party too - it'll be rude if I don't, I probably won’t stay long – but you can at least come to the concert if you want, maybe we can have a cup of tea at intermission…”

3. something that has the effect of an express assurance; indication of what may be expected.

She suggested “Since we’re having dinner already, can Stephanie come too? I’d promised her that we’d have a chance to talk about her range and pacing before the show…”

4. indication of future excellence or achievement

She explained that “I can see you next weekend instead. We do live in the same city, remember? It’s just that I’d promised to volunteer for the voice and speech workshop a few months ago, and it’s been moved up to…”

5. something that is promised.

On her way out the door she whispered “We’ll lock ourselves up together and not come out for a few days. Just you and I. When this is over. I promise.”

Of the five promises listed here, only one was broken. Guess which one.

If you guessed #5, you’re a cynic. And correct.

When you look at the overall ratio of promises kept or broken, 4 out of 5 ain't bad. But since all 5 promises affected me directly and only the last one would have involved any actual participation on my part, I’d have to rate the overall experience as less than positive.

The problem wasn't the promises themselves, it was the fact that the promises made to others trumped any promises made to me. Her take on the issue (explained pleasantly, a little regretfully) boiled down to her conviction that a promise is a promise and must be respected. As for promises made to me, well, I was her lover. We had lots of time for other promises to be made and kept, but sometimes one (the ‘one’ in question being me) had to take the intention for the deed.

This struck me as rational, mature, and rather convenient on her part. Anything she said to me was offered with a certain level of mandatory flexibility, since lovers were supposed to make allowances for such things. My part of the bargain was to understand this and accept it.

Blessed with hindsight, the situation wasn't as black-and-white as it felt at the time- there were genuine, ain't-fair-but-they're-happenin' issues that prevented a smooth running relationship in terms of scheduling. But these issues always comes down to feelings – she felt that she was doing everything she could. I felt that I was at the bottom of a list of priorities, emotionally and logistically

I told her this in so many words, and she told me that she obviously didn't want me to feel that way, but If that was the way it played out, it was only because she had so many other things to do. Had to do for her education, her career, her support network. And she asked me to be patient. It wouldn't always be that way. Things could change. She promised.

A promise can be a fine weapon, handled properly. And it dovetails beautifully into the apology, which is essentially a promise that a) you feel just gosh-darn awful about whatever happened on your watch, and b) you promise that it won't happen again. Both the promise and the apology are delicate dances; too little and they appear insincere. Lay it on too thick, and it won't hold its own weight.

You will occasionally encounter someone who believes that you can’t refuse a promise without rejecting their very soul. An example? Let’s look at Cecil, your old buddy who’s been waxing nostalgic of late. He fired off a few harsh words worth of unpleasantness in your direction in the past, and is at present a little miffed that you’re not looking to mend fences.

If Cecil promises from deep within his soul that he’s changed, and isn't drinking anymore, and deeply regrets that time he got drunk and sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ on behalf of the Oppressed Chickens of the World (OCOW) on wing night at Kelsey's, and that time he threw up in the aquarium at the Christmas party...really, you’d really have to be some kind of malicious, uncaring and really quite pathetic sad sort of jerk not to take him at his word. Right?

After all...he’s promised. And apologized.

I've known a few variations on Cecil, and may blessings fall upon them all. I'm glad that they're better. It's great that that they got that job. That they've learned to control their drinking. And kudos for cutting all ties with OCOW and taking those anger management classes. They can consider the apology accepted as long as I stay off their radar. Their Mea Culpa might have been lovely, but I'm not compelled to offer Tabula Rasa. I don't want to go for a drink and I'm definitely avoiding wing nights and anywhere with an aquarium.

More often, the Cecils in this world offer an Eight Stage Morphing Apology;

1. I didn't do it.
2. You're oversensitive.
3. I have feelings too, and I'm a little hurt at your response
4. thought I meant that? No. What I meant was...
5. Hey, I had a right to do that...
6. Maybe it's me who deserves an apology.
7. Are you still on about that? It's over. Let it go.
8. I messed up. Sorry. It won't happen again. But we're cool, right? Everything's fine, right?

The best part of the Morphing Apology is that steps 1 to 8 don't have to appear in that order. In fact, they tend to move around with great rapidity; Cecil can start at 3, dig their heels into 5, perhaps leap to 7, flirt with 8 and plea-bargain their way down to 4 if they can make it work.

I've known one variation on Cecil who tried to balance an equal show of penitent and unrepentant after a serious loss of face. When he got to me over lunch at a once-favourite bistro, he wasn't shy about his need for patience from others. "I can be a lot of work sometimes, Mike...but I'm worth it," he said gravely. By the time he started running through the entire morphing list on me to see what might stick, I wanted out of both the bistro and his overall consciousness. I was willing to settle on the past being past and best forgotten, but he was looking for absolution on a level that I didn't agree with and didn't think was mine to offer.

He finally said "I wish I knew what you wanted me to say," and it clicked for me. By that point it was obvious he was willing to say pretty much anything he thought I wanted to hear. That's different than speaking your mind, or offering an apology, or standing your ground.

At that point, the thing I most wanted hear was the waiter asking us if we were done. And, credit where credit is due, Cecil treated me to the moules et frites. Very decent of him.

I love you, she told me, You know that. I just want to stop dating. We've moved past dating. We understand each other well enough that we shouldn't need – or feel we need – to go by the rules of what other people call dating.

Not long after this, she'd sent me a letter filled with apologies and promises; she was sorry that we hadn't been spending time together, but her schedule had gone crazy and things had not worked out the way she'd planned. Her implication was that no promises had been broken, the situation had simply changed.

I bought the logic behind this, and I even accepted that she had made those promises in good faith. But I couldn't help but feel that these promises (and many along the same lines) never had a chance from the start. I was fighting a grinding sense of inevitability about it all, afraid that her that her schedule and level of stress would stop being something she insisted she was trying to overcome and would simply become the new normal which I was expected to accept automatically.

I responded with something along the lines I understand. Everything's fine. But no more promises, okay? I'd rather go day to day and see where it takes us instead of having something put forward and watching it disappear. I wanted this to sound patient and offered with the same good faith with which she offered with all of her promises. She didn't like it, and told me that I'd made her feel like a liar. We agreed to disagree, silently.

A feeks later, she'd offered me a rare no-strings-attached evening together. I would pick her up after a rehearsal and would bring her back to my place for dinner and a quiet evening without telephones or trespassers. She'd promised that there would be no interruptions. I took her at her word, but was suspicious enough to have written a letter early in the day, sealing it an envelope and hoping I wouldn't have to give it to her.

I almost did. The evening did not go off as planned. The rehearsal ran long. An errand had to be run. A few ensemble members invited us out and she insisted it would be rude not to accept. After hours of diversions and delays, she finally sighed and told met she was tired and  perhaps it would be best if she simply went home. I objected politely . We discussed it. She insisted that it would be better all the way around if she left.

The letter stayed in my pocket. But I almost slipped it into her hand as she got on the bus. I would have said “I wrote this early this morning, don’t open it until just before you go to bed.” Here's what it said:

Tonight you’ll stay late at rehearsal. You’ll get delayed trying to solve somebody else’s problem. We won;'t make it back to my place. You'll finally tell me you should really go home, is that okay? I’ll say no. But you’ll still leave me alone. 
Think about this and don't call me for a few days.

I threw it away after deciding that I wasn't entitled to deliver a letter like that. My only options were to accept what was happening, or leave it. I wasn't entitled to play I-told-you-so and sulk. And I wasn't ready to leave.

Imagine that somebody accuses you of something unpleasant. You either did it, or you didn't. If you actually did it, you can break it down further; you had to do it, were forced to do it, you did it with the best of intentions, did it for the right reasons, did it because everyone else was doing it, did it because you were almost 100% certain that nobody would get hurt, or just did it and had no idea what could possibly go wrong. But at the end of it all, you did it or you didn't.

Promises and apologies operate by these same standards. You mean it, or you don't. You accept it, or you don't. Even broken promises stem from the same untouched place as those which are fulfilled. Of course, things change sometimes. And if you've ever leveraged that phrase to get out of a promise at least once in this lifetime, welcome to humanity.

Apologies are a bit stickier- you can sincerely intend one, and upon further information sincerely wish you'd never opened your mouth to begin with. Or you can refuse until there's no other way to live with your own conscience than to apologize, being well aware that it may or may not change a thing.

There's nothing to do but state your case, make your statement, hope you don't change your mind and move on. Failing that, you become the kind of person who never stops hoping for a rematch or a re-evaluation. Imagine a pair of former lovers in a basement, peering over a box of damaged and faded letters where neither party is willing to let go of anything:

“I think this one has your name on it.”

“The ink has blurred. It might be yours.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s yours, actually…”

“I’m sure that you want to  think that.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

…repeat until you realize that the letters are irrelevant. It doesn't matter who signed them. Things change. And really; at the very least, you've got to get the hell out of that basement.

Nov 2007

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