On Making Amends

by Christopher Lovejoy on April 22, 2012

Moral discourse is sprinkled with terms like true and false, good and bad, right and wrong, all of which are subject to interpretation and apply to situations in context.

Oftentimes, a tone of voice or a physical reaction makes it clear to someone that something has been branded as false, bad, or wrong. You need not actually verbalize these terms.

Knowing that a strong, persistent feeling can easily cloud judgment doesn’t stop a subjective moralist from raising such a feeling to the status of an infallible judge and jury.

If and when such feelings can be allowed to cool, however, the wild, primal, insatiable bloodlust to judge and condemn can be allayed, and dispassionate inquiry becomes possible.

A genuine desire to make amends can then move in tandem with a desire to be forgiven.

Making amends looks a little like servitude.

In humility (or humiliation), forgiveness can be sought, but reparation asks that the penitent take the need for absolution a step further, to include a fulfilling payment of some kind.

Reparation does require humility, but any attempt to make amends might feel so close to humiliation that the penitent might put off negotiating or fulfilling a genuine offer of repair.

Where guilt says “I did wrong”, shame says “I am bad because I did wrong in a way that violates everything I stand for”. The intent to repair hurt or harm, where this is even possible, at least contains the wisdom of knowing that more can be done to absolve than just saying “I’m sorry”.

Sincere in the wish to cleanse themselves, penitents manifest their intentions one step at a time, from “I feel unworthy or ashamed of what I did”, to “I now admit that I’m guilty, ready to face the fact that I hurt you”, to “I’d like to make it up to you by …” or “is there anything I can do for you?”

They allow this process to fully inform the conscience; having released the guilt with shame and the shame with sufficient repair, forgiveness is fulfilled, and they finally feel ready to move on.

To make amends: to make it up to someone for something someone said or did. Sounds simple, but in actuality, making amends can sometimes be a soulfully complex undertaking.

If I have enough of a conscience to realize that I’ve been the perpetrator of a wrong, then I would do well to consider the following questions and suggestions for making amends:

  1. Aim for insight: “How bad was it? How and why did I hurt or harm this person (or these people)?”
  2. Offer a genuine apology: address the wrongdoing, show some understanding of how it affected the other(s), and affirm a genuine desire to preserve or repair the relationship(s).
  3. Suggest a way to repair the wrong that is germane to the wrongdoing (if I break a promise, then an offer to do something that is relevant to the promise will likely satisfy a need for repair).
  4. Avoid a repeat; if necessary, take steps to make it unlikely in the future (if I have trouble being somewhere on time, I might adjust my schedule or acquire the habit of being on time).

I can well imagine that this process can sometimes be cloudy and complicated, especially in the midst of coping with guilt or shame. Here, an ounce of prevention really is worth a ton of cure.

My post on forgiveness, which offers a barebones perspective on emotional mastery, might help you gain that ounce of prevention, but what other preventative measures might we take?

This, I submit, depends on your personality.

For the Type A Personality

In three easy steps, here’s your recipe for tempting a burden of regret (or worse):

  1. you’re in a hurry
  2. you’re under pressure to perform
  3. you’re not feeling your best

A desire, ceasing to be conscious, becomes a compulsion as it morphs into a creature of control.

Extroverted, type A folks are strongly inclined to move quickly through this world on automatic pilot. The faster they move, the more inclined they are to let the heart of conscience take a back seat in the rush to acquire and improve and sustain all manner of heady goals, results, and outcomes.

Be in a hurry, if you must, but be mindful of being in a hurry; by all means, submit to the pressure to perform, but be mindful of your need to relax on occasion; and when you’re not feeling your best, a time-out might be just the thing you need to catch your stride again and get back into the flow.

In your hot, sweaty pursuit of material objectives, you can either compromise your conscience in the process or you can stop and listen and respond appropriately to the pangs of conscience.

For the Type B Personality

In three easy steps, here’s your recipe for tempting a burden of regret (or worse):

  1. do nothing
  2. avoid responsibility
  3. pretend all is well

Introverted, type B folks are strongly inclined to take their time, to do nothing … harmoniously.

Their biggest temptation is to avoid (or worse, evade) responsibility for their inaction and then pretend that all is well. Through their inaction, they can inadvertently cause hurt or harm to others.

In some situations or sets of circumstances, doing nothing can sometimes be wise, but be mindful of those moments when doing something might prevent a burden of conscience later.

Avoid responsibility for results or outcomes that have nothing to do with you, but be mindful of those moments when taking responsibility might connect you with others in beneficial ways.

Pretending that all is well is risky, possibly bringing you into conflict with the other(s). Better to face up to reality and own up to your role in bringing it about than to undermine your integrity.

General Guidelines

Whether I lean towards a type A personality or a type B personality, I can still be responsible enough to sidestep any inclination that would tempt a burden of regret (or worse) through action or inaction.

In my interactions with others, these two guidelines work well for me:

1. Cultivate Awareness

From a witness perspective, make it a daily practice to cultivate awareness of wayward thoughts and feelings so that you can exercise discernment about when to release or express them, while resisting any temptation to indulge or suppress them – or to express them indiscriminately.

Begin by deciding on your emotional and ethical set points so that you can know what qualifies as ‘wayward’ for you. What feels good to you? What feels right? What feels good and right? Only with awareness can you exercise discernment with respect to the content of your awareness.

While establishing an ethical set point requires a sovereign moral sense – the more finely honed, the better – awareness of your emotional set point expands the more experience you have with others.

2. Assume Responsibility

Assuming responsibility for your conduct begins with holding good intentions – intentions that serve your interests without compromising or violating anyone else’s. Holding such intentions requires that you mean what you say and say what you mean to keep the promises that you make, for example.

To help them make this happen, many people follow the so-called golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – but because being is more fundamental than doing, this guideline will take your accountability to a whole new level: be the person you wish to meet.

Some Final Thoughts

As you evolve into a more conscious and loving being, making amends feels more like a gentle and loving process, offering tokens of repair that compensate for moments of thoughtless humanity.

With awareness and perspective on what it means to make amends, and with some insight into who you are, how you function or operate, and what you need, desire, and prefer, you’ll be better placed to keep regret at bay, forgoing a sometimes messy process of seeking forgiveness and making amends.

A clear, firm intention is a pure intention. Purity of intention is a lofty ideal, to be sure, which at times can seem impossible to preserve in our interactions with certain others, but remember, it can also be treated as an intention in and of itself. Personally, I think it’s worth the time and the trouble.

As you come to know more clearly what you need, desire, and prefer through your interactive experience, your intentions will grow more peaceful, powerful, prosperous, and pure the more awareness you have and the more responsibility you take. Contentment really is the ultimate prize for your soul.


This post is the thirteenth in a series that began here.

Previous post:

Next post: