I have a bad habit of saying sorry.
I think I picked it up when I turned sixteen and landed a job as a banquet server for a local restaurant. I had heard terrible stories about the restaurant, including one in which the owner’s goal every night was “to make a banquet server cry,” but I couldn’t find a job in retail, so one afternoon, I sat across from the manager, and the manager looked at me—slouched in a straight-back chair, and shrunken-in with hunched shoulders as if I was perpetually asking Who, me?—and said, “Are you sure you want to work in food service?”
I wasn’t, but I said “yes” anyway, and that was the beginning of hell.
(I’m joking. Kind of. It’s difficult to love a job when a customer asks you for extra napkins, and you bring him a couple extra fancy cloth napkins, and he looks at you and says, “Oh, no. Paper ones, please. I have to blow my nose.”)
As it turns out, I was terrible at the job. I was too shy and too afraid of my employers (and, admittedly, some of my co-workers) to excel in the position. Somewhere in those months, however, I equated being a lousy banquet server with being a worthless human being.
Always in the way. Always doing something wrong. Bringing cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. Too weak to carry the tray of mashed potatoes.
Sorry replaced pardon me? Sorry replaced excuse me, replaced I have a question; I have something to say; I don’t think this job is right for me.
To be fair, I’ve had a lot to apologize for in my life. At the end of my first shift as a banquet server, I ran through the pouring rain to my car and promptly backed into another employee’s SUV. (Oops.) I’m not immune to contributing to human tragedy. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hurt people. There’s a deep cry for justice out there warranting apologies from yours truly.
But there’s a difference between apologizing to someone because I’ve wronged him and then chronically apologizing out of habit.
Recently, I came across a comic online titled “If you want to say ‘thank you,’ don’t say ‘sorry;” by Yao Xiao.
Don’t apologize for simply existing, Xiao writes, because it’s not wrong.
Somehow I believe that humans, rather than being the accident of a particle of dust spinning wildly out of control, are molded from clay by the hands of God, and yet, I walk around half-believing that my existence is a mistake. I can’t completely shake the thought that I’m taking up space, taking up air, taking up time without giving enough in return.
I’m sorry, I find myself telling my friends when I talk too much and too often about my job, about hopes, about worries, about frustrations and fears, about small successes and failures.
I’m so afraid of worthlessness and imperfections that I fail to appreciate the person in front of me who chose me for that moment, that day, that month. The manager who hired me. The friend who answered her phone late on a Monday night. Humans who, just like me, have neither a perfect existence nor existence perfected.
So lately I find myself trying, instead, to think less often about my insecurities and shortcomings, and to focus more on the person in front of me who is accepting me for who I am.
I want to change my I’m sorrys into thank yous.
Thank you for sitting in the passenger seat of my car with the heat blasting for hours on a Monday night because I don’t want to be alone. Thank you for listening, listening, listening until I don’t have anything more to say. Thank you for telling me what I need to hear and not what I want to hear. Thank you for making me feel like I’m worth something even when I feel like I’m worth nothing because life is trays of mashed potatoes, and paper napkins, and terrible things in pouring rain. And yet, the beautiful thing about this mess of existence is that humans aren’t created to live it alone.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.