Dear Carolyn: I’m 40 with a wonderful family and fulfilling career. Occasionally I am consumed with regret for past behavior. In middle school, there was a boy who was different (a disability, thick glasses, blue-collar in a neighborhood of professionals). The students were not kind to this boy. Neither was I. I never engaged in any active teasing, but I ignored him as much as possible. We used to “spray for cooties,” and every time I had to touch something he had touched, I “sprayed”! I think I felt so out of place myself that I thought if I associated with him at all I would also be targeted.
I deeply regret being such a little horror. Would there be any utility in writing this man a letter to apologize? I see no reason to go into the specifics, except as they apply to me — my own insecurities, etc., led me to be awful.
Is an apology worth attempting, years later? Or does it just bring back painful memories for the recipient while the sender gets relief from the guilt?
Carolyn says: No, it’s not worth attempting — though I’d tweak that. It’s not appropriate to attempt. What could you say to make him whole? That you mistreated him because he looked different? Surely he knows that. That you grew up enough to feel bad about it now? I can’t imagine he’d care about that accomplishment.
My Puritanism is showing, but isn’t feeling bad about it a fitting punishment for the deed?
If you and he were face-to-face, I might answer differently. And had you been cruel to a friend, that would definitely change the answer, because a prior relationship introduces the possibility of misplaced blame. In that case, your reaching back into the past to amend the record, to place all of the blame on your own shoulders, could (not would — there’s no certainty here) heal both you and your victim. There’s still some risk your old friend wouldn’t care about a 25-year-old middle-school grievance, but you clearly still do, so there’s that.
There’s also this: You can make amends in different ways.
The first is to stop rationalizing. Yes, you’re admitting fault, but in the very same thought you’re making excuses — no active teasing, “I was insecure,” “led me to be,” blah blah. If you’re going to own it, then own it: You had in you, and no doubt still have, the capacity for such cruelty. It’s not that you were weak, it’s that you stomped on someone weaker.
You’re not alone, of course. We all have this inside.
Now you’re mature enough not to ostracize people. Well, maybe — subtle middle-school carryovers among adults pretty much keep me employed — but you insult this person all over again if you treat yours as the isolated mistake of a bygone self.
Instead, honor him by knowing your humanity, knowing this dark and selfish aspect of you, acknowledging it’s always going to be there — and never forgetting that our right to walk among decent people depends on our ongoing mastery over these impulses.
You mention a family — children? If so, then also serve this boy well through your teaching. Ask your kids what they see in school and around the neighborhood. If there are kids like this boy — targets — talk about how they might feel. Ask your kids how they handle these situations. Talk, in age-appropriate ways, about the human impulse toward elevating ourselves on the backs of those we perceive as weak. Share with them that your unkindness a quarter century ago nags at you still.
Kids will be cruel, yes — but that’s no excuse for not asking better of them.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.