Sorry About That

When I lived in Johannesburg, I was struck by South Africans’ tendency to apologize for occurrences that weren’t their fault. Early on I remember walking along a sidewalk and stubbing my toe against a root that was bursting through the cement. “Sorry, sorry,” the friend I was with said.

“What are you sorry about?” I asked. “You didn’t do it.”

“I know,” my friend replied. “I’m just sorry that that happened to your toe.”

Thus my introduction to what I now call the South African Sorry.

I grew up equating an apology with an admission of guilt. In the charged arenas of family dramas, school popularity contests, and romantic relationships, I would hold back sorrys until I was good and sure something was my fault. And when I felt wronged, I’d often take someone else’s apology as evidence that I was in the right. It always felt like the supreme gotcha.

The South African Sorry was different; it implied no guilt necessarily; just an acknowledgment of pain.

These different approaches to contrition stem in part from the varied ways people and cultures approach the individual versus the collective. The United States surely must be the capital of I; sometimes I feel like I’m moving among a mass of people who are each trapped in a bubble, oblivious to the fact that other people are actually fellow humans that compose a “we.” I fall prey to this as much as anyone; I often think, If everyone takes care of themselves, individually, we’d have a pretty good collective meld going on. Take care of your shit, and I’ll take care of mine. In this context, there is no need to apologize for anything unless it stems from one’s actions as an individual.

In contrast, in a more collective culture, which South Africa arguably is, despite its dark history of apartheid, it’d be fitting to apologize simply because a misfortune occurred in your midst — the collective has taken a hit, and it’s only sensible that witnesses to that would express sympathy. A friend once told me that she still harbors painful memories from childhood of tripping or banging her shin and no one in her large family offering any words of comfort. She wanted to know someone had noticed her misfortune.

I suspect America’s litigious culture also plays a role. Because lawsuits are so common and courtroom dramas have populated our screens for decades, I wonder sometimes if we go through our days subconsciously perceiving our interactions almost like court cases. We don’t want anybody to “have” anything on us; a record of an apology might just be used against us someday.

In the big picture, it’s not surprising that South Africa followed the end of apartheid with its extensive Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was established to help heal rather than assign blame: victims of politically motivated (read racial) crimes were able to tell their painful stories, and perpetrators of such crimes were invited to come clean on their transgressions.  The commission traveled around the country and was broadcast on national television. It was an imperfect process, but there were many powerful moments: former president F.W. de Klerk apologizing for apartheid; chairperson Archbishop Desmond Tutu weeping uncontrollably at the words of a former Robben Island prisoner describing his torture in the hands of security officers; a white policeman apologizing to a distraught African woman for killing her son. I’d never seen anything like it.

The only U.S. equivalent I’m aware of is the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to help that North Carolina city heal from the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, in which five African Americans protesters were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan during a political rally. As the Commission came to a close in 2006, the Reverend Peter Storey, a South African who participated in both reconciliation commissions, concluded, “So long as the darker events of our communal past lie buried and unacknowledged, they act like toxic waste, seeping continually to the surface to poison the present.”

This resonates to me on a personal level;  I have found that apologizing, even for events that were only partially my fault, addresses that which was festering, both in me and in the other person. It also serves to acknowledge someone else’s pain. Most importantly, when I issue a South African Sorry, I undermine my own ego, which loves to keep appearances of perfection up. With him off the scene, I’m able to feel fallible, which is exactly where compassion and empathy live.

Namesakes

When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.

“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.

“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.'”

“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”

“Relief?”

“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”

Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”

At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know.  (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.

My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.

I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world.  It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.

Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.

In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as  “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”

One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill.  I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”

Shuffling the Deck

My friend Van and his wife Trish have been married for 27 years and have amassed over 240,000 gin-rummy points between them. Van knows this because he keeps score on special tally sheets he created on his computer.

At last count, Trish was ahead by 430 points, which seventy-four-year-old Van is quick to point out indicates a difference of only .002% of the total. “She’d been behind me for months,” Van told me with a slow shake of his head over our regular Tuesday dinner. “But this week, she surged ahead.”

There are only two rules Van and Trish follow: absolutely no cheating, which means that even if you accidentally see one card in your opponent’s hand, the game must start again. And secondly, you have to keep playing; there is no giving up, whether in the middle of a hand, a bad night, a particularly difficult week, or, generally, in life. They’ve committed to playing until they literally aren’t able to anymore.

This bore itself out when Van suffered a serious seizure last Christmas, which was linked to a brain aneurysm he experienced many years ago. Van spent eight months in a medical facility, and there was no question he was deeply affected: his speech was slurred, he had trouble walking, and he didn’t have his usual sharp wit. And yet the gin games continued; Van says Trish was particularly dismayed to lose several weeks in a row to a man who could barely walk on his own.

Listening to Van, I wondered what shared diversions Annie and I have to get us through our days. We have a lot of interests in common: we both lived in South Africa and have it deeply under our skin (Rio’s middle name ain’t Mandela for nothin’); we both are passionate about social and racial justice; we love good writing and photography; we like hosting dinner parties and house guests; we both find our church in the trees. But I’m not so sure we have an equivalent to Van and Trish’s gin-rummy game.

Annie and I do have our rituals: we love to lie in bed on Sundays reading the New York Times, trading sections until I lock into the crossword and she takes apart Style. We have our spots on the couch where we watch documentaries together, discussing the finer points of storytelling afterward. On winter evenings we often sit in the living room and watch the fire.

But just as often Annie and I go our separate ways. I drink coffee; she likes tea. She’s a wake up and cuddle and chat kind of person; I like to get up and start my day on the go. I sometimes crave the kind of constant diversion that Van and Trish have found. Annie and I have discussed meditating in the morning together, but this has never really taken hold. My friend Bruce once encouraged us to integrate “talking rounds” into our week, passing a beautiful object back and forth and speaking our deep truths in turn.

It’s easy for me to romanticize what Annie and I aren’t doing, or what other people are doing, but when I asked Van about his game last night, he shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s a way to pass the time.”

For now I’m happy spending my minutes on “26 down” while Annie types away at her laptop across the couch.