Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Discouraged? Disheartened? Stop Apologizing

It took me a long time to realize what I was doing. That I was unconsciously putting myself down, attacking my own self-esteem. That I thought I was being humble, or conciliatory didn't matter, because it didn't change the impact on my life, or the discouragement I felt at the very core of my being.

But I guess I'm getting ahead of myself. I won't go back to the beginning, although who we are and how we express ourselves always goes back to the beginning. Instead, let me tell you about the day I realized that I was engaged in a common but destructive process. One that all too often gets ignored, especially by people of faith. If someone had told me what I was doing, or how my life and sense of self would completely alter with this one minor change, I'm not sure I would have believed them.
But then, I would've been wrong...

..."So I heard that you weren't watching the students on the bus. That's what one of the parents told me." My boss said, looking at me with a stern face.

"I'm not sure what you're talking about, Sandy. On every field trip I sit with a student from the class. What parent-"

"It's not important. What's important is that you understand how important it is that you're not just screwing around when you should be working. These students are counting on you."

I scrunched my face, trying to understand what she was talking about. We were in Sandy's office at the school, the principal's office. In the background, I could hear the faint conversations and rhythms unique to the school system. I'd been here for the past four years. It wasn't my first visit to the office, but it was not unlike the other ones. A lecture about something of which I was either not responsible or one in which I had no idea what she was talking about.

"I know that. I love the students-"

"Good. Let's just not let it happen again okay?"

I opened my mouth but no words came out. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to shout and protest, instead I meekly nodded my head.

"Sure, Sandy. Sorry about that."

"No problem, Steve. I'm glad we got that straightened out."

As I left the office, I felt something inside me tumble. Had I not been with the students as I should have been? No. That didn't make sense. Of course I'd sat with the students.
I moved slowly down the empty halls towards my class. Well, I thought, maybe that was part of being a Christian. To turn the other cheek. I sighed and opened the door of my class determined to put the incident behind me.

Unfortunately, it didn't go away. It wasn't the first time something like this had happened, and every time it did, I could feel my strength and confidence leaking as if someone had poked a hole in me. By the end of the day, I could barely speak.

"Hey Steve, can you walk the guys out to the van? It's home time."

"Yeah. Sorry. I'll take them."

When my students had happily piled into their van, a strange thought struck me: why did I just apologize? And why did I apologize to my boss?
Why am I always apologizing?

My spirit felt like it had been chopped in half. All these people around me, moving and talking with confidence, laughing and joking and carrying out these important discussions... They seemed to exist in another world.

Who was I to say anything? I am a nobody, I thought. I am a thirty three year old former pastor, who holds down a job he got with no interview, has no responsibilities, and apparently screws up even when he isn't aware of it. I should be 'sorry', I thought.

I went home that night, as broken and dejected as I'd ever felt in my life. The thought that kept hammering away at me was that I didn't matter. That whatever my hopes and dreams were, whatever potential I'd once had, I'd totally blown it. I might as well accept the reality of it. Just do what I can to help, love my students, and accept the fact that this is as good as it gets.
Still, something inside me burned and raged. I could not accept that this was it for me, or that I allowed other people to disrespect me so easily. I didn't accept it from the youth I loved, so why was I willing to accept it from adults, many of whom I didn't even respect?

It took more than a year to answer that question. It took a year for me to realize that I was practicing a form of self-hatred, that I was lowering my self-esteem every time I accepted someone else's idea that they were superior to me. And the clearest manifestation was the amount I found myself apologizing to people around me. Yes, I'm Canadian, and we are generally a polite people, (Old Joke: How do you get a Canadian to apologize? Step on their foot.) but in my life it had gone well past politeness to belief.

It wasn't until I left my job, tackled some of my fears, and grew some confidence again that I finally stopped doing it, but maybe it would have made a difference if someone had pointed out this one simple thing to me a few years ago:

Stop apologizing!

I hear it over and over again these days, readers and friends and family members, continually apologizing... for everything. Saying 'sorry' has gone from simply a polite term to a statement of character. We're not just sorry about the incident at work, or that we're in somebody's way, or that we didn't get the entire house cleaned, or that we didn't get the grades or the promotion we were hoping for, we're sorry for much more than that. This constant act of debasement has the effect of us apologizing for who we are, for the way God made us, for the things we love and don't love. What we are doing, in fact, is telling our Creator that He made a mistake. That we are a mistake. That we are not created in God's loving image, but rather that we are nothing more than poor, sinful creatures crawling upon the dust and grime just hoping to please God and the 'bigger' people around us. This is taught, in no small measure, in too many Christian circles. Complimentarians claim that for women, it merely entails a different role, not a different value. This almost sounds acceptable, until you SEE it applied and the expectation for women is to literally debase themselves simply because they are not men. Where is the nobility of Creation in that?

There is a marked difference between asking forgiveness and saying 'sorry'. We must always be ready to ask forgiveness, but forgiveness is weighted, serious, and introspective. Apologizing rarely entails any of those trademarks. And every time we apologize to 'keep the peace' or avoid confrontation or 'to be the meek person God expects me to be', we actually perform an act of self-hatred. And as this hatred piles up, it becomes harder and harder for us to dream, for us to express our passions. In some cases it manifests itself in relationships. I know many women who are no longer capable of making a decision without their husband's 'approval'. I know co-workers and employees and friends who can barely look me in the eye, ever ready as they are to apologize for something they did or did not do.

It's time to stop.

It's time to change your story.

It's time for you to walk in the confidence and strength and passion God gave you when He created you.

And even if you do something that you think is terrible, you need to stop believing these lies that what you've done is unfixable or that someone else wouldn't have 'screwed up' like you did. Changing your story is important, because we are who we tell ourselves we are. If we tell ourselves, and let others tell us, that we are not smart enough, not strong enough, not deserving enough, than that is what we will be. It isn't a story we can change overnight. Some of you have been told that you are worthless since you were young, and every where you go, other people seem to reinforce that.

There are two things you can do. First, surround yourself with positive people, and if your choices are limited (not all of us can change our jobs), than submerge yourself in inspirational literature and films. Engage yourself in positive stories that inspire you.
Secondly, for one day examine how often you say 'sorry' to people. If you want to be polite, say 'excuse me.' If you make a mistake, apologize ONCE. Mean it. Accept responsibility for it. And MOVE ON. Do not continue to apologize and prostrate yourself before your boss or friend or spouse or partner.

Confidence bleeds when we apologize for things that we are not responsible for, including our personality. I didn't stand up to my boss that day at work, and I paid the price. I should have told her. "You're wrong. I'm a great worker. You need to check your information." Instead, I sucked it up and watched my confidence bleed onto the carpet. I know many people who apologize for simply being themselves. If you don't like to go to parties, then don't go. That's okay. It's you!

If you're in a relationship, you make compromises, but you never compromise yourself. And yes, I'm talking to you dear women. And to my introverted friends, male and female, who often feel denigrated when they'd rather spend time alone. Don't feel that way. It is how God made you. And if someone asks why you don't like "the company of God's people" or something equally stupid, firmly tell them that you prefer to spend time alone. If they start accusing you of not being (and this is the brutal truth in many Christian circles) "Christian enough" or that you need "help", perhaps a reminder such as "And you wonder why I like time alone." would not be inappropriate.

It amazes me still, that two millennia after Jesus, we still confuse paganism and Christianity. That somehow we believe God wants us to debase ourselves in front of some ruins in the dirt and grovel before the people around us. He doesn't. God thought so much of His people, He became one of us!

My prayer this week is that you will take a long look at your life. Are you apologizing too much? Even if you're not apologizing aloud, are you doing it in your mind or when you're alone? Is the story you're telling yourself one in which you are always to blame? If that's the case, you need to stop. Make an effort to NOT apologize this week, to catch yourself every time it slips to the end of your tongue. God did not apologize for creating humanity, even when we turned our back on Him. So why should we apologize for who we are?
You are noble, my friend. Capable of sin, it's true, but still uniquely created with your own passions and giftings and purpose. A great place awaits you, a place filled with dreams and confidence and strength... and hope. My prayer is that you will head for that place, and along the way, however you decide to get there, you'll stop apologizing.