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May 14, 2021

Mandy Nolan’s Soapbox: The Power of Sorry

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MAYDAY – MAYDAY – One hundred years ago today

One hundred years ago this week, around noon on Saturday 14 May 1921, the 2,000 tonne steamship Wollongbar ran aground on Belongil beach.

‘Dear Mandy Nolan, I am writing to apologise to you…’

Saying sorry is powerful. I think we forget sometimes how profound a true act of contrition can be. We live in a world populated by capitalist power brokers and politicians who wreak havoc without ever having the courage to admit they were wrong. Being able to apologise is not just recognition of our failings – that we are human and that we make mistakes – but on reflection that we have the insight to desire repatriation. We start with sorry. Sometimes it’s all we have. It’s just words – it doesn’t change what happened, but somehow, when hearts are open, the act of saying sorry can go deep between the giver and the receiver. There’s an intimacy of true forgiveness that happens so rarely, it takes your breath away when it does.

It caught me by surprise today in the post office. I was handed a small white envelope addressed to ‘Ms Mandy Nolan, Comedian/Entertainer, Poste Restante c/- Post Office, Mullumbimby.’

My first reaction was ‘oh dear’. Handwritten mail to Mandy Nolan comes in two shades: beautiful, creative and kind, or abusive, hectoring and mean. I look at the envelope more closely; the cursive writing has a humility in the way it gently slants on the page. It doesn’t look like an angry pen that pushes holes when it dots the ‘i’s and whose downstrokes tear the page. So I open it at the counter and I read:

‘Dear Mandy Nolan,

I am writing to apologise to you…’ 

I feel the first tear. I know I can’t read any more at that point because I will start bawling in the post office. It’s so lovely I announce to the entire post office (just five socially distanced customers) ‘Someone has written me a letter of apology!’ Of course no one is interested, but I hold it up to show them, like I’m a two-year-old with a Thomas the Tank Engine card that toots.

It’s like I’ve won something. Which, in a way, I did. I won this little piece of connection brought about by misunderstanding. It’s simple and it’s beautiful, and I have to rush to the car to read the rest of the letter, so I can cry in private. In a culture of online outrage, where people seem to be more comfortable with cruelty than with kindness, there is something precious about a handwritten apology.

To give a little context: a few weeks ago I’d written about my three kids being in lockdown in Melbourne – there were various sympathetic responses, and a few unkind ones that I found strange and hurtful and, at the time, hard to fathom. The writer of this letter had been the author of some of the latter comments. While I’m the cause of affection for many, I am also the cause of great irritation to some – so I am not unused to unkind remarks. Those ‘some’ love to comment on my posts to let off a little bit of steam now and then. They like to put me in my place. Ironically, Roger and Robot are two of my most dedicated readers. They hate me. But they can’t get enough of me. I love that they read me every week. It must give them something to look forward to. I am used to people like Roger and Robot. Abuse and criticism is predictable and expected. I’m not used to people who have the capacity to truly apologise.

It instantly made me compassionate. It reminded me not to take things personally – that someone else might be having a bad day. It’s not always about me, even when it is about me. Not many people know how to apologise. Generally they make excuses for their behaviour, ‘I’m sorry but… ’ I think I apologise like that. This person didn’t. They wrote ‘There is no excuse I can offer. It was simply rude and uncalled for. Please accept my deepest apologies for my unthinking behaviour.’

Well I totally do. I have nowhere to send my reply. This person has disappeared off my Facebook, so I’ve had to write here to say: 

Thank you. I accept your apology. 

No hard feelings. 

Wow, it just makes me want to go be mean to someone so I can make amends.

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  1. I also read your every column. Yours and Mungo’s are definitely columns I look forward to reading. “Sorry” is an interesting phrase. From it being something proffered to indication contrition, it has become something of an obsession. A genuine apology can break down some pretty serious barriers and you use the phrase “truly sorry”, but we have let “sorry” morph into something far more sinister. Every little wrong or grievance now, apparently requires an apology. Politicians and corporations have learned the art of the “weasel-word conditional apology” – which is, in essence, an “I apologise ….. but only if anyone took offence”. John (The Rat) Howard refused to apologise to the stolen generations – but he was an entitled white man who didn’t think the indigenous had any claim to Australia, wasn’t truly sorry and feared that an apology would lead to a flood of compensation claims. But what I think is far worse is we now have the “Russell Crowe in Unhinged” demand for an apology – but an apology is never enough. What the demand reveals is a need for the person who has done the alleged wrong to grovel in submission, so that the giver of the apology is vanquished or crushed. The neurotic demander feels diminished by the alleged wrong (when often there is no wrong – it is in the mind of the “victim”) and needs to regain their “rightful” ascendant position and that requires more than an apology – it requires submission. It interests me how many people now use their SUV or dual-cab to gain ascendancy over others and woe betide anyone who challenges that ascendancy. Moreover, a “truly sorry” apology can’t be demanded or obtained under duress – it can only be freely given.

  2. Yes, Mandy. Making amends is part of the ‘sorry’ too.
    True forgiveness & the courage to go on caring even
    if the opposite happens is difficult to handle. If you’re
    anyone like me & sitting in a hurt zone the old song
    “I don’t believe in IF anymore. If is for children…. ”
    can be of help.

  3. Comedians come in all shapes & sizes & it’s
    good to know that humor can trouble & hurt
    the ‘performer’ as well as the audience. Hey,
    Mandy works on ‘trust’ & instinct – that’s why
    her perspective is so popular & supportive.


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