Sunday, May 30, 2004

NEW YORK - The apologies come in mostly late at night, when people are alone with their thoughts.

“I’m sorry that I turned my back on true love,” says one man. “I’m sorry for having an affair with a married man,” a woman says.

Others apologize for embezzlement or for lying.

One sad voice says, “I’m sorry I was ever born.”

These are the callers to the apology hot line, a college student’s effort to offer solace to troubled souls unable or unwilling to unburden their conscience in person.

Calls to the number are transferred to an answering machine that urges callers to “apologize for anything.”

“Say you’re sorry. The idea is to make yourself feel better.”

The hot line offers participants a chance to alleviate their guilt and, to some degree, to own up to their misdeeds. Several art and Internet projects provide similar forums, offering comfort without the risk of confrontation.

Project creators say they are offering a public service, but critics worry that such apologies might be helping people avoid the face-to-face closure.

“You might get something off your chest, but how really honest is that to the person you’re trying to apologize to?” asked the Rev. Kevin Irwin, a theology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington.

The hot line’s creator, 20-year-old sophomore Jesse Jacobs, believes the line can offer redemption to the 30 to 50 people who call each week.

“I’m just hoping that these people will feel better themselves, just by getting whatever’s been bothering them off their chest,” said Mr. Jacobs, an art history major at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Callers, who remain anonymous, learn about the line from postcards that Mr. Jacobs leaves around the New York area or through small ads placed in the back of local publications. Many callers, he said, are in earnest search of absolution.

“I hope this apology will cleanse me and basically purify my soul, my conscience,” says one caller. “God knows, I need it.”

Such apologies, even to an answering machine, can provide valuable relief to those riddled by feelings of guilt or depression, said psychologist Jay Nagdimon, director of the Suicide Prevention Center at Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center in Los Angeles.

“Psychologically, apologizing helps people to accept themselves better,” he said.

Mr. Jacobs said he understands the healing power of saying you’re sorry. Caught stealing beef jerky from a store as a child, it wasn’t until he returned to apologize to the manager that he felt some relief.

“I actually felt a lot better afterward,” he said. “It was like a stone on my conscience for so long.”

Father Irwin agreed that apologies are valuable — when he hears confessions he often suggests apologizing as part of a penance. Still, he likened the hot line callers might experience to “feeling good on the cheap.”

Some callers to the apology hot line are seeking more than an anonymous forum. One desperate-sounding man who apologized “for existing, pretty much,” and said he had “always been a failure,” left his phone number. But Mr. Jacobs — uncomfortable with playing what he calls “the God role” — said he didn’t plan to return the call.

The service could be harmful for such anguished callers, said ethics professor Margaret Urban Walker, who is finishing a book on wrongdoing and repairing relationships at the Princeton University Center for Human Values.

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