What Sir Paul McCartney Understands About Contrition That Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis Did Not (Nor Most Current Public Apologizers)
By Neal Michell
We live in an age of public apologies. Politicians are apologizing, celebrities are apologizing, athletes are apologizing. Dig down in those apologies, and you’ll find that most of them are not real apologies. They’re fake apologies. They are non-apologizing apologies. Most of these public apologies ring hollow. Many of these apologies leave the average listener satisfied; yet something seems to be lacking. We know they are missing something, but it’s hard to put one’s finger on the problem.
Recently, a certain “reality star” publicly issued one such apology. Here’s his apology. “Hey, I just wanted to own up to the fact that over the years on Twitter, I’ve definitely tweeted some unartful and insensitive things. Sometimes they worked as jokes in my head and I was dismayed to see how they read on screen.” Translated, this apology says, “I’m sorry if anyone was hurt by things I’ve said. I was trying to be funny, but it didn’t work.”
This is a typical non-apology apology, and it often leaves the hurt party even more hurt and angry. So, what is missing?
In a July 2019 interview with Stephen Colbert, Sir Paul McCartney discussed his song “Yesterday.” This song is the Beatles song most frequently recorded by other musicians. McCartney noted that the top three most popular versions of his song “Yesterday” were performed by Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, and Elvis Presley. Here’s McCartney’s exchange with Colbert about these top three cover versions of “Yesterday”:
McCartney: They [Sinatra, Gaye, and Elvis] changed the words. In the middle, I go, “I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday.” And all of them said, “I must have said something wrong.” They’re not owning up! I musta, I don’t know. . . [Blows air across his lips p-h-p-h-p-h] Search me.
Colbert: That’s like those apologies, “If anyone was offended…”
What was missing from those other versions of “Yesterday” and from most contemporary public apologies?
Proper contrition and confession.
The Christian sacrament of reconciliation is traditionally understood to consist of four parts: contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (or penance).
- Contrition is an attitude of sorrow or remorse along with repentance, or an intention to turn from the sin committed.
- Confession is a clear naming or telling of the sin for which absolution is requested.
- Absolution is the pronunciation of forgiveness by the priest on behalf of God.
- Satisfaction is the making amends for the sin committed against the person sinned against, and the performance of penance when such actual restitution against the person aggrieved cannot be provided.
The apology of the above-noted reality star was lacking both proper contrition and confession.
First, proper contrition carries with it a certain amount of sorrow or remorse for the person committing the sin. To describe the hurtful things that the reality star tweeted as “inartful” is to ignore the hurt and pain inflicted upon the object of the hurtful communication. For an apology to be effective, the person who was hurt must know that the person uttering the harmful words really understands how deeply the recipient was hurt. Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Until the person who was hurt senses contrition in the person who did the hurting, the apology will be insufficient to bring about reconciliation.
Second, the confession by this reality star failed for lack of specificity. One of the themes in the Bible is the power of naming. In the Scriptures, to name something is to exercise dominion over that person or place. For example, in the book of Genesis,
- God named both Adam and Eve.
- God changed Abram’s name — “exalted father” — to Abraham — “father of many nations.”
- God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah, from “princely” in terms of “fussy” or “contentious” to, simply, “princess,” signifying an elevation of Sarah’s status.
- God changed Jacob’s name, meaning “deceiver” to Israel, “let God contend.”
When we are not specific in our apologies, when it is not really clear about what we are supposedly confessing, Sir Paul McCartney would say, “They’re not owning up.”
May God help us to be both contrite and specific in our apologies.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born and currently lives in Dallas, Texas. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. He currently serves as Visiting Professor for Pastoral Ministry at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.