By Neil McKinnon
The Olympic Games in London caused me to rethink my position on apologies. I now realize that alone they are meaningless. In order to be significant an apology must be accompanied by excruciating, overwhelming, gut-wrenching shame.
This was brought home to me by the awe-inspiring contrition of Paula Findlay, a young Canadian tri-athlete who came in last after suffering dizzy spells during her event. “I feel so bad,” she said crying. “I just want to apologise. I feel terrible. I’m really sorry to everybody, to Canada.” The hand-wringing, soul-destroying remorse was dramatic. The headline read, Paula Findlay embodies the Olympic Spirit. I had no idea that shame was emblematic of any type of spirit.
Her performance reminded me of a Chinese athlete who won a silver medal in the Beijing Olympics four years ago. In a subsequent interview he said that he had put the medal on his wall so that daily he would be reminded of his shame.
This year, in London, another Chinese competitor, Wu Jingbiao, broke down after winning a silver medal in men’s weight-lifting. “I’m ashamed, for disgracing the motherland, the Chinese weight-lifting team and all those who supported me,” he sniffled. “I’m sorry.”
Bulgaria’s top female wrestler, Starka Zlateva, commenting on her silver medal performance said, “This is a big shame and disgrace, but there is no going back. I will have to carry my cross.” In Australia, the news media frequently referred to the shame incurred by the Australian swim team. They won fewer gold medals and more silver than they did four years ago.
So, the lesson is that an apology is not enough. One must be ashamed beyond belief and then expiate that shame by parading it in front of the entire world, preferably accompanied by an act of penance.
Over a cappuccino last Monday it occurred to me that what’s good for the Olympics should be good in other fields. As a favour to runners-up everywhere I offer the following examples:
Nobel Prize for Literature: While the Nobel committee does not announce second place many well-known writers have either been passed over or failed to gain nomination. Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov and Salman Rushdie have all been denied the Nobel medal. As a favor to every literary second banana, I’ve prepared the following remarks: I vow never to write again. There is no greater shame than not finishing first. I wish to apologize to my country, my agent, my publisher, bookstores everywhere and my family for the trash that I have been foisting on the world. No words can convey the absolute degradation and no amount of repentance will erase the shame I feel. Of course, another book is out of the question. When informed of the committee’s decision, I immediately dug a large pit and filled it with tinder after carefully placing my latest manuscript on the bottom. After this interview, I intend to light the tinder. When I am satisfied that the manuscript has been burnt beyond reconstruction, I will cast myself into the flames. My hope is that by this meagre act, my shame will be carried skyward along with the smoke from the smouldering manuscript so that neither will ever again irritate literary sensibilities or a reader’s nostrils.
Medical school graduation: Let me say how badly I feel for standing second in the class of 2012. I must apologise to the university, the medical faculty, to my parents, to hospitals and to doctors everywhere. My career is finished before it starts. The distance between first place and second is the same as that between a precise incision and a sliced artery. There are no words to adequately describe my disgrace so on the conclusion of this interview, I’m going straight to the hospital morgue where I intend to disembowel myself using a scalpel that I placed there earlier for exactly this situation.
Guilty verdict at a trial: It is unforgivable for me to have lost this case. I wish to apologise to my client, Al, his family and every other Chicago citizen. I willingly offer myself as retribution and, as an act of contrition, I have purchased ready-mix cement and piano wire which will be available to any of Mr. Capone’s colleagues who wish to meet me near the river—shall we say 10:30 this evening at the Clark Street Bridge. Signed, Michael Ahern, Lawyer.
Target Shooting: I wish to apologise to my family, especially my brother Frank and to my colleagues for my loss in this latest competition. It is the first time I have come in second and the shame is unbearable. I would like to perform an act of penance but unfortunately I’m already dead. Signed, Jesse James.
Adventure travel: I feel terrible. The sheer humiliation of coming second, especially to a Norwegian poltroon has left me emotionally drained. I’m frozen with mortification. A finish line means naught when you arrive second. There is nothing for it but to bow out, swallow my shame and return home. It seems useless to plod on. Signed, Robert Falcon Scott.
I’m sure that there are other fields where second place finishers can expiate their shame publicly. I would like to explore them but unfortunately I’ve just discovered that another writer has already published similar examples. It’s so embarrassing. I’m leaving now to leap off a bridge.
(Ed. Note: Neil is the author of Tuckahoe Slidebottle (Thistledown Press) which was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Humour Award and the Howard O’Hagen Short Fiction Award.)
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