I was a young teenager in 1970 when I saw the film, Love Story with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. It contains a line of dialogue that the American Film Institute has rated the thirteenth most memorable quote in one hundred years of movies: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I can attest to its memorability because it has remained with me all these years, provoking, agitating, and finally, awakening me.
For most of my life, my thoughts about this statement went something like this: Wrong! Love means you do say you’re sorry. That’s how we develop trust, which is essential for love. I was keenly aware when someone had hurt me. After a sincere apology, the relationship was restored, then we moved on. In turn, I was usually quick to recognize when I’d injured another and apologized, wishing to heal the fracture and reconcile the relationship, above all else.
Humans are meant to be relational. We live in a state of dependence longer than any other species. In a good-enough environment, the complex attachment centers in the child’s brain will flourish, fostering trust, resiliency, affect-regulation, and other essential behaviors that pave the way for loving relationships, which increase our chances of survival. The close connections we form in families are cauldrons of growth and transformation that compel us to let go of resentments, cultivate patience, show compassion to ourselves and others, develop communication, expand consciousness, and be humble enough to show remorse—all necessary attributes for love.
One cannot become a mature adult, develop friendships, marry, raise children, and engage in a multitude of relationships without wounding and being wounded, giving and receiving apologies, and offering plenty of forgiveness all around, including self-forgiveness. Forgive-and-forget may be cliché, but it’s no small feat. How skillfully we achieve it depends on our courage to maintain an open heart to ourselves and others. If love asks nothing else, it begs us to step outside of our narcissistic viewpoint and see the other—invite them in. It asks us to recognize the crazy wisdom of Wavy Gravy when he said, “We’re all just Bozos on the bus!” We’re not robots, programmed without error. We’re humans, and we screw things up on a regular basis. When we’ve broken the precious container of a caring relationship, we must mend it with tender care and with words like, “I’m sorry.”
After reading all this, you may wonder how I came to find this movie quote so awakening. It came with deep reflection on the inevitable times when I felt hurt by a loved one and did not get the compassion I desired. Sometimes I even received rebuke for trying to repair the relationship. In my grief, I went searching for answers, and one of the healers I found was the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. In her talk, Smile at Fear, she said that when we are injured by someone who matters to us, we experience an agonizing sense of unworthiness. When overcome by unworthiness, we want others to change (and perhaps apologize) so this intolerable feeling will end. But what if the loved one is afraid, egotistical, insensitive, too immature or fragile to say they’re sorry and reach out for repair? What do we do with our pain then?
Undoubtedly, there are times when we must release a loved one who continues to create hardship or refuses to reconcile. Distance is sometimes the compassionate decision for everyone, but that’s a complex topic for another day. Today, I’m referring to relationships that we choose not to dissolve. When this is the case, it becomes helpful to know we can learn to work through our emotions on our own. Pema Chodron advises sitting patiently with the feelings of unworthiness that inevitably emerge. The pain doesn’t simply disappear, but we can unlearn the habitual hardening of our hearts in fear of it. We can hold ourselves with compassion as if we were holding a crying child. In time, it’s important to be able to quiet the mind by anchoring the thoughts in the breath, in beauty, in a loving phrase, or in a prayer. We have to train the mind to avoid escalating the drama by adding to the story with endless bad sequels. When we are patient, we remember that suffering won’t last forever, and it does indeed subside. In the practice of containing all that we are, our minds gain strength and our hearts gain courage.
As I hold myself with care and forgiveness, my ego gets out of the way. Unworthiness dissolves in the warmth of the embrace. Radical, fearless compassion nourishes the True Self, strengthening our connection with God, the Source, Mother Nature—Call it what you will, but it’s bigger than the little “me.” With this opening to grace, we will experience tenderness for the offender as well. That tenderness is what awakened me to the truth of this quote. This state of grace has the surprising secondary effect of connecting us with compassion for the other, even the one who may have offended us. When I am anchored in the strength of my True Self, it means that you don’t have to say you’re sorry for me to be all right.
Do I believe love means never having to say you’re sorry? Certainly not. But I have also come to realize that sometimes when we are in the purest state of grace, it means we don’t need “I’m sorry” to keep loving ourselves, and we don’t need it to keep loving the other Bozos on the bus with us.