A few weeks ago something strange happened. I was headed uptown to see a friend and as I was headed up the subway stairs and back onto the street a woman grabbed the sleeve of my jacket and started talking. I was listening to my iPod and when I pulled out my headphone to hear what she was saying. She was asking for money. I’m sorry, I said, I don’t have any. She dropped my sleeve as if it scorched her. You’re not fucking sorry. she said and walked away.
As I turned and walked up the street I started replaying the moment over again in my mind. Or, more precisely, I started playing my mind over and over again. What I was looking for was something to disprove her. I was looking for a moment in my mumbled apology where I genuinely felt sorry. I couldn’t find it. What’s more is that even as I was turning it over and over in my mind I still wasn’t sorry. And the more I trudged up 3rd Ave the more it began to worry me. When I got to my friend’s I told him about it, about how I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel anything for her. He looked at me confused and said, Why would you?
I am known—where I am known—for being a pretty cold person. I was raised to have little patience for public displays of emotion—regardless of what they may be. As a result my ideas around how to display emotion are, well, a little warped. A couple holding hands or kissing on the street will almost always make me cranky, and when people cry in public I become outright homicidal. In my family anger is never passionate—in fact you can gauge how upset someone is by how quiet they are, not how loud. When I went to college and studied sciences I was all the more convinced that the majority of the world’s problems could be solved by a dispassionate eye. I became convinced that if humans had one big problem, it was feeling too much. The solutions to most problems were actually pretty obvious. What got in the way was excess emotion.
A few days ago a friend told me about a boy she’d been seeing and how the relationship wasn’t really progressing the way she wanted. I told her that the thing to do was to be clear to him about what she wanted. When I asked her how it went she told me that he’d been really non-committal with his response. I shrugged, End it. I said. She frowned, It’s hard though. I said, I know. I’m sorry. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I felt disingenuous. I wasn’t sorry. So what was I?
The thing about apologies is that they’re said too often. The number of times a day that I hear or say the words, I’m sorry in response to things is insane. Especially given that I am very rarely sorry. That’s, after all, the secret power of words right? They mean things. And the word “sorry” is supposed to mean something. But somehow it’s become a word that I say when I have nothing to say—not when I mean to say it.
See, what gives a word like sorry—or any word for that matter—its power is the feeling behind it. The other day I watched a woman tell a man that he wasn’t sorry for something. I was walking quickly and didn’t have time to eavesdrop, but I could extrapolate the situation. You can say the word “sorry” but not change the thing you’re doing. And if you do that, are you really sorry?
When I was a child I had entirely too many feelings. If someone was mean to me I would cry for hours. My mother says that at one point she seriously worried whether or not I had developmental delay because when I fell down or hurt myself I wouldn’t get up. Instead I would just lay there—whimpering. I would sob hysterically about trees getting cut down. Which is to say that I was horrifically unpopular. In high school I was extremely popular—but I was also mean and selfish. And in a lot of ways it was the same excess of feeling that drove me. My popularity wasn’t about having friends—it was about revenge. It was about having enough social power to finally make people feel bad for being mean to me.
It was New York that finally drove home the lesson that you can’t feel something about everything. Some things have to be nothing. Sometimes the world isn’t nice—people aren’t nice. But you have to let it go. The alternative will put you in constant overload. Since coming here I’ve seen things—and done things—that would add significant amounts of white to my mother’s hair. But I’ve also learned how to get into a wreck on my bike that requires almost 30 stitches to put my hand back together—and go to work after I get out of the ER. But New York doesn’t just teach you how to be tough—it can also teach you the deepest humility. Every hospital trip, every flu I’ve suffered through alone in my apartment, has taught me that human lives are painfully easy to end. And that the reason we don’t die faster than we do is because we help each other.
When that homeless woman told me I wasn’t sorry—and when I realized I wasn’t—I began to doubt my humanity. I began to wonder whether or not I had lost the ability to empathize with people on a basic level. Never mind the fact that I actually don’t carry cash and had nothing to give her—the problem was that I didn’t feel anything. And for that there can be no excuse. There can never be an excuse for not making an honest effort to understand another human being’s hurt. But one of the best things about this city is that, even in its brutality, it can remind you that you’re human. New York is a sort of fun house mirror. The reflection it gives you back is often so grossly distorted as to look monstrous—but it’s in those moments that you reach down into yourself and rediscover how human you can be.
What I realized after the fact was that I actually had lost something. I had lost touch with the person inside of me who gave a damn. People frequently say that New York will make you hard. But I think that’s only true if you’re not paying attention. The city is, in so many ways, an exercise in charity. And—at least for me—the apology I’ve been meaning to issue is to all the people I’ve given false apologies too. Apologies I should’ve meant. To forgive and be forgiven is a harder task than it seems—but always worth pursuing. And the city is here remind you both that you should be sorry—but also that you can be forgiven.
As one of my favorite movie quotes goes: Of course, New York is where everyone comes to be forgiven. What’ve you done wrong? Tell me. How have you sinned? I’m sure it’s nothing serious.
By Marc Dones