On the old Bob Newhart Show, the one that cast Bob as a psychiatrist, one regular character carried meekness to a fault. He was a failure as a door-to-door salesman because he feared knocking on people's doors might disturb them. So he'd wait on the doorstep, hoping they'd happen to open the door.

One day this fretful character bustled into Bob's office muttering, "I'm sorry I'm late."

"You're not late," said Bob.

"Well then, I'm sorry I'm early," he replied.

"You're not early, either," Bob told him.

"I'm sorry," he sighed.

I was reminded of this apologetic character by the recurrent waves of apology sweeping over the country: whites apologizing to blacks, Catholics apologizing to Jews, Promise Keepers apologizing to everybody. In some cases there are good reasons for apologizing, and it's a necessary first step. But what's the second step? You can't go on being sorry forever, unless you want to wind up on a psychiatrist's couch. What's supposed to happen after repentance?

Of course, the prior question is whether we're dealing with true repentance at all; in some cases, the popular device of formal apology might only be a token paid to blunt criticism. It sounds like, "I'm sorry," but it means, "I said I was sorry." Thus at one end of the apology spectrum are those who intend to do nothing more than say the magic words. It's a get-out-of-jail-free card—sometimes literally. Men of public stature caught using funds or women in questionable ways often use this ploy.

Then there's the apology that takes a diplomatic tone, where one group makes a formal statement to another regarding wrongs in history. I imagine that these statements are made when the apologizers feel crushed by the guilt of yesteryear and search for a way to alleviate ...

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