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The strength to say sorry

Joseph Ratzinger may be a prejudiced and narrow-minded Pope, but he?s one of those rare men of power who has the strength to say sorry, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 24, 2006 01:14 IST

Whoever thought of the aphorism ‘to err is human, to forgive divine’ got it wrong. Forgiveness is the easy part. Once someone says sorry most of us are inclined to forgive. The difficult bit is apologising. If to err is human, to apologise is divine.

Pause for a moment and think carefully. How often do you realise you’ve done or said the wrong thing and then, despite that acceptance, hold back from saying sorry? And if you do, is it not an enormous effort? And even then, don’t you seek a form of words that could dilute the apology? Sorry may be a simple, single syllable word but it’s possibly the most difficult to utter.

And now consider, on those rare occasions when someone has offended you and apologised, how readily and swiftly you are prepared to forgive once sorry has been said. No doubt, some of us sulk — perhaps tactically — but most forgive either at once or eventually.

Apologies are rare because it’s difficult to accept one is wrong. And to do so publicly is even tougher. But to do it when you are important, when the world is waiting for your apology and ready to publicise the fact, must be hardest of all. That’s why important people rarely apologise. That’s also why those who do are truly special.

That’s the category in which I see the Pope. Just consider the facts. He made a silly, almost unforgivable mistake. Even those who by virtue of their faith believe in papal infallibility were convinced he had behaved like a fool. Not just in the eyes of his critics, but in the estimation of his supporters, his stock had fallen. And the world pounced on him. An apology was demanded. Not an explanation of what he meant, not even an expression of regret, but an upfront use of the word sorry, said in person and delivered in public.

Frankly, it must have been the most difficult thing to do. Remember it’s easy to say sorry when no one is looking and when no one has asked you to do so. But when the world is waiting and the pressure is growing the word sticks in the gullet. I admire the Pope for saying sorry fulsomely, publicly and quickly.

I know of two other powerful men who’ve had the courage to say sorry. And yes, I do mean courage. Today, despite all our differences, I admire them for it.

The first was Rajiv Gandhi. In the declining months of his government he encouraged me to return to India and find a career at home. At the time, after losing my wife, I was looking for a change. To help me judge the situation he found me a sinecure at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Three months later his government was defeated. The experience had been invaluable but Rajiv felt he had let me down. A week after his defeat he telephoned.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve left you in the lurch.” A few days later Rajiv introduced me to Shobhana Bhartia thus starting my new career.

The other person is LK Advani. Way back in 1990, after my first interview, he started to avoid me. When I asked what the problem was he replied he’d been told the interview was a travesty. I asked if he had seen it and he said he had not. So I suggested he should, sent him a tape and awaited his response. Months went by in silence. Then one evening the phone rang.

“This is LK Advani,” he began. “I owe you an apology. I’m too old to claim I was misled. I was simply wrong. I’ve seen the interview and it’s exactly as you said it would be.”

As a journalist, I may scoff at Rajiv Gandhi and belittle his politics or I may quarrel with LK Advani and question his motives. But as individuals I hold them in high esteem. They’ve proved that no one is too big to say sorry.

I try to live by this principle. When at fault I want to apologise. Sometimes I do although often I don’t. I feel happy with myself when I have the strength to say sorry. When I don’t, I feel small. On such occasions I pretend I have nothing to apologise for. Inside, however, I know I’m bluffing. I know I’m wrong. And I know I can’t admit it.

Joseph Ratzinger may be a prejudiced and narrow-minded Pope, but he’s one of those rare men of power who has the strength to say sorry. If you’re determined not to forget his mistake I suggest you also remember his apology. And then ask, could you have done the same yourself?