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“I’m Sorry” is the New “Thank You”

I have always been accused of saying “I’m Sorry” a bit too much.

I don’t know where it started really. I don’t know if I would consider myself of low self-esteem, I don’t even think I’d be a good judge of that (that’s supposed to be funny – or not). I’ve changed it recent years to “My bad” and “Forgive me”, but the words “I’m sorry” come pretty naturally to me (and to others apparently). And when I think about it, there’s a lot to be sorry for. At least that’s how I’ve felt growing up. Being an only child, I suppose things were always my fault, that I never seemed to know better. But recently when I had some vulnerable discussions with my cousin, I realized that perhaps our fathers expected us to know things that, at least I don’t recall I was ever told.

I can’t help but wonder, in a culture that is borne out of intuition and subtlety, it’s not just me, is it? Asian culture is a great deal about the unspoken and understood, the implied and the inferred. Few of us have heard our parents say, “I love you” — it is, after all, understood. Of course they love me — why else would they keep me, feed me, clothe me, shelter me, push me, discipline me, critique me, demand the best out of me, plan my life for me, control me, ignore me, hold me in contempt, and estrange me? The love runs so deep, it cuts. I have fallen so many times in the eyes of my parents, that there were moments that I simply stayed down to save myself the trouble of having to say “I’m sorry” yet again. My apologies runneth over.

Of course, it cuts both ways I suppose. I wonder if I know how to love my parents better or if things are really better left unsaid…I ran into this post of an Indian girl, who makes the connection between saying sorry and love.

In many Asian societies we never ever tell our parents we love them. One of the things that struck me most about Western TV serials and soap operas when they first appeared on Indian television was that of characters hugging their parents and saying: I love you Mummy/Daddy. I don’t think I’ve ever told my parents that, and I can safely say that most Indian kids never do. Doesn’t mean we don’t love our parents, it’s something we just never ever do. But it doesn’t mean we don’t say sorry. Just as we learn to recognize parental love, it brings with it the implicit understanding that your parents will love you no matter what, as long as you own up to what you’ve done. And that means having to say your sorry.

If love means having to say you’re sorry (contrary to Eric Segal’s 70’s tearjerker), then perhaps my strong sense of Asian-grown guilt really speaks to my enormous gratitude, perhaps? Maybe my ever-present (though with age, less looming) sense of inadequacy, self-questioning, deep sense of obligation to my parents, is my “thank you”. Perhaps with the clash of culture within my own heart, I don’t know how quite to express my gratitude to them for their sacrifices for me, how their hopes and dreams for me have carried me so far…the straightforward “thank you” would never do. I understand that there is something Spartan about this line of thinking, but perhaps there is a connection between overwhelming humility and utter gratitude. What I mean to say is “Thank you”, but what comes out is “I’m sorry”. Perhaps before in my adolescence it meant more, “I’m sorry–I don’t deserve this”, but now that I’m older and a little more aware of what my parents gave up and continue to give, I think it means, “I’m sorry–I wish I could express how grateful I am every moment to you.”

In many of my deepest, most profound moments with Jesus, I find myself weeping and saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And finding myself heard and understood, in ways that I am only beginning to understand is “Thank you. I’m so thankful.” And God knows the difference. This is not a lack of understanding of theology about where my salvation comes from or my worth before God or even in my own eyes. This is about how that Asian side of me can inform a deeper gratitude, of understanding my lack of words in the face of that amazing, relentless grace. Perhaps this is where my “I’m sorry” is the new “thank you”.

and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.


About David Park

Christian 2nd-generation Korean American; Atlanta Georgia; more details to come.

2 responses to ““I’m Sorry” is the New “Thank You”

  1. paul

    great reflection; i do see a thin line between overwhelming humility and utter gratitude, kinda like the one between genius and lunacy.

    you’re not alone; in jr high my non-asian friends asked me why i said sorry so much; our confucian culture trained us to say sorry for the many reasons you noted above. in many situations, “thank you” would better communicate what we feel to Westerners, but it may be an issue of emphasis, positive or negative, half-full or half-empty;
    eg, i don’t think western theologians necessarily have a better balance in interpreting emotions in the bible.

  2. Thanks Paul. I agree, and for me, just realizing the origin of that overapologetic heart is helpful insight to understanding the value of what was given for me. I think especially with the Gospel presenting such a different set of values in the face of the Asian ethic for success and prosperity or the American values of individualism and entitlement, that the sense of guilt and the tension of obligation and duty that counters the freedom that the bible speaks of in Galatians 5 heightens the feeling of being apologetic, remorse that we may fail the expectations of our parents or the mainstream culture but still be valued in the eyes of Jesus. Because in light of what the gospel shows, success is the new failure; riches are the new poverty; and much like the tax collector who can scarcely lift his head to pray, “I’m sorry” is the new “thank you”.

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