A few weeks ago, I read a news article about a doctoral dissertation that contained research about how often parents apologize to their children. The author of the dissertation, who is now a psychology professor, began his research on apologies in general. While reading professional publications on the topic, he noticed that there was very little written specifically about apologies given by parents to children. His dissertation research quantified the paucity of information about parental apologies; he found that parents rarely, if ever, apologize for their mistakes or failures in their relationships with their children. This anomaly led him to change the direction of his research and writing. He found that parental apologies, even many decades after the fact, have the effect of strengthening the relationship between parent and child.
The doctoral candidate’s research also found that the primary obstacle to apologizing is the guilt one feels about having acted unfairly or unkindly. At this juncture, the news article used a term I had not seen before. The article described guilt as “pro-social” behavior. The article didn’t define the meaning of the term “pro-social” behavior, but it’s easy enough to guess. Pro-social behavior is the opposite of anti-social behavior.
Anti-social behavior is the sort of selfishness that gives one license to do as one pleases without regard to the consequences one’s actions have on other people. Everyone is familiar with anti-social behavior. Crime, fraud, and violence are instances of anti-social behavior. Less obvious instances of anti-social behavior are the passive-aggressive acts of science-denial, materialism, and disruptiveness.
“Pro-social” behavior, then, is behavior that assesses honestly the effect one’s actions have on other people. Guilt is a reflection of the negative effects one’s behavior has on another; as such, it is a powerful motivation for change. Change, in this context, includes but is not limited to apologizing to those harmed. These are among the brilliant insights of the social sciences. There are, however, some limitations to the social sciences. The doctoral dissertation identified one of those limitations; the researcher found that guilt (a pro-social behavior) is a powerful obstacle to making apologies. Guilt requires one to acknowledge one’s limitations and failings; this is a daunting task even when it occurs outside the parent-child relationship.
Is there a motivation that might lead one to face the challenge of admitting one’s guilt? Here, religious faith provides an insight not available to the social sciences.
Luke’s wry sense of humor is on display in the exhortation at the end of today’s first reading. The Apostles Peter and John had just healed a man who was lame from birth. Like the other physical maladies mentioned in the Christian Scriptures, the man’s inability to walk served as a metaphor for a spiritual malady. The man’s inability to walk represented the crowd’s inability to walk in the Way taught by Jesus. The crowds had turned their backs to Jesus when they crucified him; they needed to turn their lives around in order to become his followers. Rather than blaming the crowds for their complicity in Jesus’ death, Peter called them to repentance. He said, “Change your way of thinking, therefore, and change the direction of your life that your sins might be erased.” (Acts 3:19)
Many in the crowds acknowledged their guilt, repented, and found forgiveness. It was the beginning of a new way of life for them. Specifically, it was an experience of the pro-social nature of guilt. When the people in the crowd acknowledged their faulty judgments about Jesus, they saw a new possibility for reconciliation with God, others, and self. Their repentance, (in essence, an apology to God), led them to turn their lives around, change their way of thinking, and become followers of Jesus.
The consequence of the crowd’s repentance is that they were added to the community of Jesus’ disciples. (Acts 4:4) This is a graphic example of pro-social behavior: they repented, were reconciled with God, and found a sense of belonging in a human community.
Religious faith reveals a depth of human existence not discoverable by scientific enquiry, namely, all human relationships grow out of one’s relationship with God. There is, therefore, a compelling reason to face one’s guilt: doing so creates the possibility of being reconciled to God and neighbor. Rather than being an isolated instance of acknowledging failure, an apology (an act of repentance) has an effect on the whole of human society. Apologies are pro-social because they participate in God’s desire to reconcile all people.
If you’re bothered by the pervasive nature of anti-social behavior, you can add to its volume by complaining, blaming, denying, or retaliating. If, on the other hand, you are bothered by the pervasive nature of anti-social behavior and want to see a positive change in the world, apologize to someone you’ve harmed. Peter proclaimed, “Change your way of thinking, therefore, and change the direction of your life that your sins might be erased.” (Acts 3:19) Those who heeded his exhortation found a new life in a renewed world.