Sorry – why it matters

Something profound has happened in the inner life of our nation. And it is likely to affect the inner life of every one of us as individual Australians. That great word “sorry” was finally heard, spoken by our Prime Minister with a due sense of the sacred, the support of the entire parliament and with unflinching clarity about what the parliament and the nation need to be sorry for. It was only a beginning of what has unfolded since and will continue to unfold, but it was a beginning that cannot be underestimated.

13 February 2008 is likely to become one of the most memorable dates in our Australian history.  My great hope is that it can remain a day of genuine reflection as well as some degree of celebration, because it was only sincere and deep reflection that allowed it to come about. It powerfully demonstrated the inextricable links between public policy and private behaviour. The injustices done to indigenous Australians came about because of non-indigenous Australians’ ignorance and prejudice condoned and hardened by institutionalised racism. Surely a positive transformation of private attitudes can also be accelerated by public change? After all, how we see ourselves and one another absolutely affects our daily lives. It drives actions as well as attitudes. “Sorry” was never about words or policy only. What is far more crucial is how deeply the word continues to be understood and whether it takes us towards becoming a more courageous and inclusive nation.

Aboriginal commentators before and since the event have been clear about the absolute necessity to feel the sorrow that makes “Sorry” meaningful and brings it to life. “Regret”, the word favoured by the previous government, was never enough.  Regret is a cerebral response, an orderly word that holds another person’s pain at a safe distance. Sorrow, by contrast, engages the heart. It arises from and expresses our deepest common human emotions. And nothing else will do. In the wrongs done to Aboriginal people, and especially in the dehumanising and institutionalised contempt that allowed the taking of children from their families, and the herding of human beings like cattle, hearts were broken.  There can be no healing of hearts without unreserved sorrow.

More than anything else, people who have suffered wounding and injustice want their suffering to be acknowledged and understood. This is true for everyone, whatever their cultural background. It is true in personal relationships and it is true in the complex relationships between administrators of public institutions and the people they serve. The slightest degree of denial or trivialisation does not only prolong the injustice, it magnifies and continues it. The outburst of spontaneous hugs between unlikely people on the day itself, less than a month ago, was testimony to how important those heartfelt levels of comprehension are on the road to reconciliation. And how important a genuine expression of feeling can be.  Embracing another person, holding someone in your arms and close to your heart, always says: “I feel with you as well as for you. You matter. Your suffering matters.”  Deep feeling and understanding connect people in ways that words alone never can. And they are essential for the beginning of healing.

In one of the most public relationships of all, between the two sides of parliament and the first Australians, the power of sorry will continue to be played out. We can’t yet know how far it will take us. But I feel passionately that this weighty shift in public policy is a chance to go forward also as individuals.  Careless stereotyping, unexamined prejudice and assumptions and divisive habits of thinking remain part of Australian life. Deep reflection preceded that public apology. Deep reflection and genuine sorrow will also allow us as individuals to move with these significant and more hopeful times.

This article first appeared in Good Weekend, 8 March 2008, and should not be reproduced without permission.