I knew right away who had left the homemade card in my mailbox with a simple outline of a girl’s unhappy face on it. Underneath the caption read, “Color me sorry!” I had been upset with Judy for something she had said. But how could I be angry with her now, especially when I read the kind words inside the card stating how much our friendship meant to her. It was just like Judy to say “I’m sorry” so quickly, thoughtfully, and creatively. I called to thank her for the card, and our friendship was strengthened because of her apology.

The words I’m sorry really can work magic, but too often they are left unsaid. Why? Because let’s face it, they’re often the most difficult words in any language to utter. They can stick to the roof of the mouth like cheap peanut butter. They can lodge in the throat like an oversized pill. Why do we have so much trouble apologizing? Sometimes we are simply embarrassed. Often our pride gets in the way. Many times sheer stubbornness or anger stands in the way. It is ironical that it usually doesn’t hurt to apologize about trivial things. We excuse ourselves for coughing or even accidentally touching someone in passing. We even over-apologize about our shortcomings, such as a messy room or our hair not looking exactly right. But, when it comes to more important apologies—apologies that might even make a difference in our lives—we get “all choked up” and the words don’t seem to want to come.

Janet and Pete had grown up next door to each other, had been great friends, and had eventually begun dating. Now that Pete had been back from his mission for several months, we were expecting to see an engagement ring soon. When I heard they had split up, I was shocked. They had a great deal in common and had always seemed so happy around one another. They had been so sure.

“We had an argument,” Jan explained, “and he won’t apologize. We haven’t spoken for weeks.” Then she added, “I’m certainly not going to apologize. It’s not my fault. He’s the one who said some mean things.”

“Had you ever argued before?” I asked.

“No, never. That’s just the problem. I have no idea how to handle this. Guess it’s over.” When I asked her what they had argued about, she couldn’t remember, but she could remember clearly the harsh words that had been exchanged. In fact, she had memorized them. Anger had made each of them stubborn, and Pete and Jan were both certain each was the injured party and the victim of injustice.

I remembered hearing once about the “temporary apology,” and I suggested it to her.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Even if you don’t think you’re the one at fault …”

“I know I’m not!”

“Even if you know you’re not at fault, apologize for what you are sorry about. You could tell Pete you’re sorry you haven’t been on good terms. Then at least the ice will be broken.”

“He’s the one who should do that,” she said. But I could tell she was thinking about it.

When I talked to Janet again, she said she had tried the “temporary apology” and that she and Pete had started speaking again. “In fact, Pete told me he was really sorry and had been wanting to apologize for quite a while but just didn’t know how. He said he was glad I had had the courage. Thanks for the tip on the ‘temporary apology,’” Janet said. “It did take some pride-swallowing, but it was worth it. I can’t believe we almost broke up over such a stupid word exchange.”

Many people have broken up friendships and even ended their marriages because of “stupid word exchanges.” Neither party thinks he is the one who should apologize. Anger combined with stubbornness is probably the top cause of relationship fallout.

Even easier than the temporary apology is the written apology. A letter saying, “I’m really sorry. I do appreciate and love you.” Or just an “I’m sorry” note stuck to the medicine cabinet can give first aid to an injured family member or roommate. A friend of mine, a school teacher, received the following refreshing note from one of her students:

“I want to apologize to you for some of the things I said about you at the first of the year. I thought you were a mean witch, and I even told some other kids that. I was kind of scared of you, and being new in school and all, I thought it was a cool thing to do. Now I can’t believe I really said that. Now I wish you would be my teacher forever. You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had. Love, Mary Jane”

Words that probably would never have been spoken were written and delivered. My friend will always cherish that note.

Another type of apology is the “action apology”—saying “I’m sorry” through something we do. The next time Pete and Janet had a disagreement, he sent her one white rose. Words weren’t necessary with that kind of an “I’m sorry.” The action apology can be fun and creative. Baking someone’s favorite cake, or buying a cupcake and placing a little white flag in the middle, or buying a funny item or card will tickle the funny bone. A homemade card like my friend Judy’s can say anything you wish to get the point across. How about a picture of the “temper monster” that bit you, or a picture of a leg because you could “just kick yourself.” Laughter is indeed the best medicine when it comes to injured feelings and can open the door to a more serious apology.

The “word and action” apology can be the most potent type of apology. When actions show we really are sorry even after we have said the words, we have truly and totally apologized. When Bill broke a family rule regarding the car, he apologized by saying, “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t do it again.” Then through responsible actions, he reinforced the words. If his future actions regarding the use of the car had contradicted his promise, the words obviously wouldn’t have meant much. Saying “I’m sorry” to our Father in Heaven and then following through with appropriate actions is, of course, known as repentance and is the most important type of apology. It is such a deep sorrow that we are willing to do something about ourselves—change the mistake or wrongdoing. The word and action apology is the epitome, the highest form of apology, the proof that we really are sorry.

The pride that prohibits us from saying “I’m sorry” is the pride that can also shut us off from friendships, important relationships, and even from the blessings of the gospel.

Whatever form of apology we use, two rules should apply. First, we should try to patch things up quickly before the tear or injury becomes deeper and more difficult to mend through built-up resentments. Second, the apology should be sincere.

Just last week a sprightly fellow accidentally jabbed my foot with his umbrella. Physical pain can cause anger, and I winced and gritted my teeth. I expected him to mumble an “excuse me” and rush off into the crowd, but he stopped dead still.

“Oh, I’m so very sorry, miss.” His accent was English. “Are you quite all right?”

“Yes, I think so,” I said.

“Are you quite sure? I do hope so!”

“I’m fine,” I said smiling. It wasn’t the charm of the accent but his total sincerity that melted away my pain and anger. Perhaps we could even say that an apology is not really an apology without sincerity, for if we speak words without the heart strings attached, we are easily recognized as hypocrites and our apology is just a series of hollow words without meaning. Only the sincere apology can melt the heart and help repair the injury. And it usually does just exactly that.

Illustrated by Lee Shaw

Photos by Eldon Linschoten