Saying Sorry, Contrition, Repentance and the Scorpion

Earlier this week I commented on the words of John Healey, the Housing Minister who said that repossession is not always a bad thing.  As has been pointed out, the 46,000 people repossessed in the last year would probably disagree, and would no doubt like a word of apology from him.  You know, the ‘s’ word.  Sorry.  And, I expect that they would want him to mean what he says – to be truly sorry for the hurt that his comments may have caused.

There have been other recent stories where saying Sorry may not yet be enough – John Terry and Ashley Cole, for example.  Of course, that’s a matter for them and their families, but the bottom line is that today saying ‘Sorry’ has been devalued.  People throw the word off when they get caught out and it’s hard for us to know whether they genuinely mean it or not.  Saying Sorry should be the external, communicable expression of that internal shift in attitude and behaviour that, as a Christian, I would call contrition and repentance.

An act of contrition is a prayer that expresses sorrow for sins committed.  Repentance is the next step –  it typically “includes an admission of guilt, a promise or resolve not to repeat the offense; an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.” (Wikipedia)

When we hear the expression ‘Sorry’, can’t necessarily see whether someone is contrite or not, and but we can see whether someonehas been truly repentant – they change the behaviour that caused the problem and at least make a gesture towards righting the wrong.  I’ve dropped a few clangers in my time and hope that I’ve shown enough contrition and repentance for my behaviour – only people around me can tell me that.

Without contrition and repentance – even if you don’t have any religious beliefs – all that it means when you say ‘Sorry’ is that you’re sorry you’ve been caught, and the only Commandment you’re concerned about breaking is the mythical ‘Eleventh Commandment’ – ‘Thou Shalt Not Get Caught’.  To say Sorry without truly expressing contrition and repentance is like being a child making a promise with ‘crossed fingers’ – for those unaware of this particular bit of childhood culture, such a promise was held to be breakable at will.  What may be acceptable in a child is particularly sad and graceless in an adult.

Which brings us back to people in the public eye.  I’d genuinely like to believe that folks who get caught behaving badly see the light and that they will, after apologising to all concerned, will perform some little act of contrition and then prove their repentance by changing their behaviour.  After all, no one is perfect and, as they say ‘shit happens’ in the best regulated lives that may lead us in to the path of temptation.  But therein lies the mark of the man (or woman) – to be able to not repeat the errors of the past again.  

When I encounter the ‘serial offenders’ of the world who do something, apologise, claim to be contrite, publicly change their behaviour and then get caught in a similar situation a few months later I do start wondering whether there’s something more involved than just lack of will power.  Perhaps it’s character as well.  There’s a fablethat’s been repeated in many places, about a Scorpion who wants to cross a river.  He ponders this problem for a while when he sees a frog hopping along.  He asks the frog whether it would be possible to ride on his back whilst the frog swims the river. The frog points out that the scorpion is likely to sting him on the journey and kill him.  The scorpion replies that were he to do that, then he too would drown, as well as the frog.  The frog goes along with this, and the pair start the river crossing.  Half way across the scorpion stings the frog, and as they both drown the frog asks ‘Why?’  The scorpion sadly remarks ‘It’s in my nature.’  

Fortunately, most of us are civilised human beings of good character, and not toxic arachnids with an appetite for self-destruction who also destroy the lives of those around them.

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