Friday, October 19, 2007

The Art of Apology

Regardless of race, religion and country, I believe that humans can be divided into two basic groups: those who know how to say "I'm sorry," and those for whom ego or mild psychosis prevents them from ever admitting they are wrong.

I grew up in a house where I observed both extremes of that behaviour, and I try to emulate my father's example of generally taking responsibility and apologizing in a timely manner, ie. not three days later when the argument has festered into a septic sensitive sore. This week was a test of that commitment.

Earlier in the week, I was standing in the copy shop preparing some documents for work. An elderly woman came up to me and asked "Are you done yet," when I clearly was not. Most days I would either ignore the silly question, or respond firmly and yet kindly. That day, I turned around, sneered at her, and said, "Does it look like I am done?" (I plead insomnia, I had slept less than three hours the night before.) She was both offended and intimidated, and it was only after I left the store that I felt badly about my exaggerated and belligerent behaviour. I considered going back and apologizing to this woman, but did not, and instead let myself feel guilty about it for several hours.

Sometimes you need to know when to swallow ego and the need to be right. Two days ago, a patient - obviously in pain - called to see if she could schedule an emergency appointment. I was unable to create an opening, and suggested that she see someone else while I placed her name on a Waiting List, or try palliative measures for two days and receive treatment today (Friday). We tentatively scheduled, and I assured her that as soon as there was a cancellation, I would contact her.

Yesterday, she called to remind me that she was in pain, that she would like to get an appointment as soon as possible, and to make sure that I remembered her state of suffering.
I apologized for her perception that I had been anything but accommodating and understanding, but that I truly would have seen her sooner if I could have. She hung up sounding sad and angry.

For several hours afterwards - while cooking, while swimming, while running errands - I obsessed, not about potentially losing a patient, but knowing that I had in fact done everything within the natural limit, and knowing that she was sitting at home moping about this. My perceptive house cleaner pointed out that if I was mulling over the relatively minor event to this extent, surely she was suffering as well, and I ought to call her to clear the air.

Which I did; I called her and in as kind a tone as I could muster, explained that I truly tried to see her when she had initially called, but that there are only so many hours in the day. I proceeded by emphasizing that my actions were not to be taken personally in any way, that I wish to continue to help her in the future, and I don't want "bad feelings" driving a wedge between us.

She thanked me for calling back, and I thanked her for listening. After hanging up the phone, while there was still a part of me that felt that I was compromising myself for the Greater Peace, I felt like I had faced and dealt with the consequences of the words that came out of my mouth.

And now that I have spilled all this out to you, dear reader, the obsessing ends.

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