Letters of Apology

Letters of Apology began collecting letters in 2008 as a forum where people can contribute an anonymous letter of apology for any unfinished business they'd like to take care of. In this way people can speak with a heartfelt sincerity that isn't always possible face to face. Letters are addressed to Dear Mom, Dear Neighbor, Dear Husband, etc., giving readers the opportunity to identify with others carrying similar burdens or read the words that sound like they were written just for them. Volume 1 of these extraordinary letters was published in 2009 and is excerpted here.

In these letters, people tell us about the different kinds of mistakes they've made and the honest and sincere regret they feel for having made them. Reading them reminds us that other people — maybe even millions of people — have made the same mistakes. They also let us know that other people — maybe even millions — have struggled because of someone else's mistakes.

This is an amazing gift. When we accept it, we accept the truth implied within: that the people who hurt us may feel the same sincere regret for what they did even if they've never spoken or written the words we've longed to hear.

To my Fiancé,
From the bottom of my heart I apologize to you for not being faithful to you and messing up our relationship. I totally accept that I was wrong in doing this and I should have never done this to you because you are a good man who didn't deserve it. I was going through a very emotional and confusing stage in my life. I was afraid that the life we had wasn't going to last forever or that we would never make it to where we are now, thinking about getting married.

I truly apologize that I did this to you. I know how much this messed you up emotionally as well as mentally. This also taught me how to be a better and more truthful person to you and to myself. I have truly accepted that it was my mistake and apologize for it from the bottom of my heart. Loving you more than ever before,

The simple fact is that an apology only needs to be seven words long: I'm sorry I did this to you. It's all the other words people include that can dilute an apology's ability to resolve a situation. People shy away from the simplicity of this apology because it's humbling. When delivered with sincerity, there's no place to hide, no excuses, nothing — just the simplest of statements that acknowledges and exposes our imperfections in front of another human being.

Sometimes people do a good job with the "I'm sorry" part, but without the other five words, how does the listener know what someone is saying they're sorry for? The person speaking could just as easily be finishing the sentence in their mind with a slew of words that have nothing to do with a sincere apology. Instinctively, we know this.

The "…I did this…" part will let both of us know that we are on the same page talking about the same thing. And if we can agree on what happened, then we should be able to resolve the situation. But it's the last two words, the "…to you" that seal the deal. When someone finishes his or her apology with the "…to you" words, it's like a breath of fresh air to us because now we can put the whole situation behind us.

Without the last two words even the simplest, smallest, stupidest issues can take up residency in dark corners of our mind where they threaten to influence all future interactions with that person. If an unresolved issue persists long enough or is severe enough, it has the potential of influencing the way we interact with everyone and everything else in our world.

Dear Son,
The life that I have lived has not been one of privilege, and is no excuse for not being in your life. I regret that I have allowed you to grow up with only one parent. I am sorry for allowing this jail life to come between you and me, and not being there for you when you needed a father. There is nothing I can do to make up for the years I have left you without a father.

I do believe that you have the right to despise me and the awful mistakes that I have made. It is not the killing or drug crimes I regret, that is the life I chose. The crime of allowing a young man to grow up without a father is the crime I now serve the rest of my life in prison for. The only crime I shed tears for everyday of my shameful life.

I sincerely write this letter in hope of putting you at peace with the demons I have allowed to fill your soul. I know I have not been there to teach you right from wrong. I hope I have influenced and set enough of an example for you to be nothing like me. If I have done that then I know you will live a long life filled with hope, love and the motivation to achieve greatness.

I have always loved you,
From the Dad to a stranger

The easiest way to recognize when an apology is appropriate is to look at a situation like it's an equation. On one side of the equation we have people doing something. On the other side of the equation we have people dealing with the results. If the results have had a negative effect on a person, place or thing, chances are very good that someone owes somebody an apology.

We've all been on both sides of the apology equation and learned a few things in the process. Like how much easier it is to recognize when we're the one owed the apology than it is to admit it if we're the one who owes the apology. We've also experienced the shift in power that sometimes takes place when the equation is completed.

Without a doubt, none of us enjoys finding ourselves on the wrong side of the apology equation regardless of how we got there. It doesn't matter if we got there as the result of a miscommunication, someone else's minor mistake or the result of someone else's ridiculously unacceptable behavior. All of these situations can be unpleasant and uncomfortable and when we find ourselves caught up in them our instinct is very often to wonder what we did wrong.

In reality, we've been drawn into someone else's drama and once we start thinking from this perspective it's hard to shift our attention to any other. We want to understand what happened and we think that if we can figure out what we did wrong, then we might be able to fix things and prevent this type of thing from ever happening again. Unfortunately when we spend our time trying to understand what we did wrong, we lose sight of the simple truth: people do what they do for their own reasons.

Dear Daughter,
Let me start by saying that the day you were born was the happiest day of my life. I was so young, barely a teenager and so inexperienced. But when I saw your beautiful face it made the pain go away.

I know you think that you were not planned, wanted or welcome. I was never taught how to love and therefore I'm a woman of small words, or few words. This is why I want to write these words and though they are way overdue, I want to write them while I'm still alive.

I'm so sorry for not telling you how much you mean to me, how much I love you and how proud I am of you!

I also want to tell you that I am so sorry for all the hurt you've suffered and all you've been through.

I'm so sorry for all of the abuse: physical, mental, spiritual and yes, even sexual. I know what your father did to you. I do believe you. Maybe if I had had the courage to do something when you told me you would've been okay. If I had believed you sooner and left him, or ran away, or sought shelter for us you wouldn't have had to pay the price you paid. I was so young and feared for my life and yours. I was paralyzed with fear so I stayed.

I need to say I'm sorry. I believe you and I pray that you can forgive me so that I can rest in peace.

If someone did something and we suffered as a result, regardless of whether that was their intention or not, their decision to act was influenced by their private agendas, both conscious and unconscious and made in the quiet solitude of their mind. We might have provided input, but it doesn't make any difference what our input was; any action they took was based on a decision they made for their own private reasons.

Granted, it takes a little time and practice to stop reacting to people and their actions, especially if we have history with them. But if we can delay our reaction long enough to wonder what might be going on for someone else, we'll see unexpected things like sadness, frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, fear, etc., all of which probably have nothing to do with us. And when we take the time to consider what might be going on for someone else, we are less likely to jump to the conclusion that we are responsible for his or her actions.

Dear Wife,
I am sorry for all the pain that I've caused you. I never meant to hurt you. I didn't know how a man was supposed to treat his wife. I didn't understand that I should have cherished and loved you sincerely and with all of my heart. I regret cheating on you, hitting you, neglecting you and running away from my responsibilities as a husband.

I never want to hurt anyone this way again. I realize now what a beautiful, loving and caring person you are. I hope you find love, peace and happiness because I took all of that away from you. I never befriended you and hope that you will find friendship in your next relationship, someone you can talk to, someone who will listen to you and understand and respect your feelings.

I will love you always. I am forever sorry.
Your Husband

Every time we wrap the seven magic words around a situation we've created and offer them to the person or people involved, we're not just saying we're sorry; we're saying that we value our relationship with them, that they deserve better, that it wasn't their fault, that they are worthy and that we are truly and sincerely sorry if we did something that made them feel otherwise. When we tell the people in our lives this, then maybe, when they look in the mirror tomorrow morning it will be easier for them to see and believe these truths too.

Valerie Utton, M.Ed., is author of Letters of Apology, an ongoing project that welcomes your contribution of your own anonymous letter of apology for future editions of the book. Please email letters to letterofapology@earthlink.net, fax to 203-413-6390 or mail to PO Box 934, Suffield, CT 06078. For more information visitwww.theletterbooks.com.