I have another Lenten reflection on Chapman and Thomas’s The Five Languages of Apology.
Beyond expressing regret, a second element of an apology is accepting responsibility. Chapman tells how his little son once responded to the accusation of knocking a glass off a table. His son said, “It did it by itself.” Rather than take responsibility, we blame it. I have actually had spouses tell me about an affair, “It just happened.”
Chapman traces this to self-esteem issues. We all desire to think well of ourselves. We think admitting blame is a sign of weakness. So we assign responsibility to some vague force outside of ourselves. We blame it.
This caused me to think of a movie I saw recently. Hope Springs was advertised as a romantic comedy. It resolves like a romantic comedy at the end. But it is actually a painful look inside a dysfunctional marriage. Meryl Streep plays Kay. Tommy Lee Jones plays Arnold. And Steve Carell (that guy from The Office) play the marriage counselor or coach.
Kay and Arnold have entered their empty-nest years and no longer have a physical relationship. Kay wants to get their relationship back on track so she gives Arnold an ultimatum. They have to go to Maine (they live in Omaha) for a marriage-renewal experience run by the Steve Carell character.
Early on Kay says that Arnold is a bully. By the end of the movie, I am thinking that Kay is actually the bully. That is because the romantic-comedy ending is achieved not by an apology and forgiveness, but by Kay threatening to leave and Arnold buckling under.Arnold is not a sympathic character. He is stingy– really stingy. And he has become emotionally and physically withdrawn from his wife. He resists therapy. But when he finally expresses himself, it comes out that Kay had regularly rejected his advances for years. Finally, he had just given up and shut down. Now he feels deep resentment for what he calls “all those g-d d-mn years”, and probably also because he has made an adjustment that is working for him and now Kay wants to change things up again.
Kay does not deny that she was the one who first withdrew from a physical relationship. But she says that she rejected Arnold because she felt he did not really desire her. All he really wanted was “it”. Of course, from Arnold’s point of view she wasn’t rejecting it; she was rejecting him. She never apologizes and she blames it.
I do not see how you get to the romantic-comedy ending without Kay and Arnold both taking responsibility and apologizing. But in the movie Kay is going to leave. The counselor explains this to Arnold. So he apparently just tamps down all his anger and resentment and tries to give Kay what she wants. So the message seems to be that the way for a spouse to get what they want is to threaten to leave.
Anyway, I thought this was a good example of blaming it and not taking responsibility.
I am not sure how I got from Lent to a movie about old people and sex. Perhaps it is because the performances of Streep, Jones and Carell make us uncomfortable. They are confronting deep and painful issues. This may be because penitence requires taking responsibility. This is hard and distressing to us.
But it also seems to me that in a back-handed way Hope Springs illustrates how without penitence or apology reconciliation will be shallow or empty.