The Personalist Project

Some days my father used to come home from work in a bad mood. Maybe it was one of his incessant headaches, or maybe his new boss at the library was pursuing her relentless mission to make him into a tender of machines instead of a guardian and steward of books.

He'd walk in the door and before we knew it everybody was yelling, accusing, defending, and yelling some more. We were a large, loud  crew—with 26 years between my youngest brother and me—and we weren't very civilized. A handy pretext was never lacking.

So far, so normal.

But sometimes—often, in fact—he'd stop, look at the chaos that had so suddenly sprung up in his wake, silently acknowledging that he'd set it off. Then he'd walk back out the front door, walk in again, and call, "Hi, I'm home!"

"Abba's home!" we'd yell, as if he'd just that moment arrived--and family life would proceed in relative peace and harmony.

As far as I remember, it always worked.

Later I realized that not all families did that, and I tried to analyze why it was so effective. I think it came down to this: he loved us and we knew it. If he was crabby, we knew perfectly well he wasn't expressing some deep-seated bitterness towards us. He was tired, or something hurt, or some bureaucrat was giving him a hard time.

There was no explicit articulation of the words "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you," but they were clearly spoken anyway.

If you weren't there, this "method" might sound like an attempt to avoid blame or an unwillingness to accept responsibility. But it wasn't. There was no pressure for that cheap or premature or "unprincipled" forgiveness—the kind that does so much harm, as Katie's pointed out here and here. This wasn't about someone pretending there was nothing to forgive, or that maybe there was a little something but it was our Christian duty to overlook it and relinquish the right to respectful treatment. What was going on was more like what Paul talks about in Romans 7: "For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do."

Of course, we're talking about crabbiness, not anything major. But most daily conflict isn't major, either, and there's nothing wrong with having an effective method on hand to defuse things. In general I don't much like the idea of tools and techniques for use in dealings with family, or anybody. They can also open the door to treating people generically: addressing them like a particular category of problem instead of a person. And no single technique is a panacea.

But this one was a winner.

Comments (8)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Dec 8, 2015 9:58am

Lovely! I can't tell you how often I've declared a "reset" on an interaction between or with my kids. I do it to give them chances to practice making their behavior match the love and care we do, underneath all the crabbiness, have for one another--to insist we all treat one another as persons worthy of respect and kindness. And...sometimes, with the little grumpy interactions, stopping and trying to suss out motivations and injuries done and obtaining proper apologies and forgiveness all around would only magnify and give weight to interactions that we all know are not who we are or want to be. So the chance to just start over comes as a blessed mercy.

Devra Torres

#2, Dec 8, 2015 10:22am

Yes, we also do a quick version of "I'm sorry," "I forgive you," and "Let's start over" with the little ones. So simple and works so well!


#3, Dec 8, 2015 9:11pm

Sounds just like what I did yesterday. 

Rhett Segall

#4, Dec 11, 2015 11:11am


An excellent example of everyday forgiveness! I always held the Morris West's affirmation that three key sentences are "I was wrong. I'm sorry. I won't do it again." pretty much covered the territory in human reconciliation. I felt that "Love means never having to say you're sorry" was not only corny but wrong. I think now that I may have been too hard on Jenny in Love Story. I think people can have an implicit contrition and for various psychological reasons cannot pronounce it. It can be an act of mercy for the offended to recognize this and facilitate the reconciliation by not insisting  on an apology. I think this scenario is applicable to Jesus with Peter after Jesus' resurrection.


Katie van Schaijik

#5, Dec 11, 2015 11:14am

That affective reality "underneath it all" is what's crucial, I think.

I've been in situations where there's the outward formula of "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" overlays unrelieved tension and unaddressed alienation.

Devra Torres

#6, Dec 13, 2015 8:45pm

Yes, it's possible to have the outward formula without the inward reality, or the other way around--or both, of course.  But without the inward reality, it doesn't matter whether the outward part is expressed according to formula or not--it can't substitute for what matters.

"I was wrong, I'm sorry, I won't do it again" does cover everything--and then, too, it can stop in his tracks someone who's trying to drag out a conflict, because after that there's nothing a reasonable person can demand! 

Drusilla Barron

#7, Dec 21, 2015 5:24pm

We often forget that just living together is the stuff of becoming holy. We regularly hurt each other in so many tiny ways just by being in a particular place at a particular time, by singing or speaking when another wants quiet, by smiling when another is feeling adverse to all things happy, by being grumpy and infecting others with our grumpiness. What a wonderful gift that your father saw his negative affect and chose to make a positive transformation before it coloured the entire evening.

Devra Torres

#8, Dec 23, 2015 1:06pm

That was the great thing about it--it caught a downward spiral and turned it back around!

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