America’s country cooking queen, Paula Deen, is currently the subject of a heated debate about language and second chances after she admitted to using the N-word. Deen apologized on the Today Show last week, but she also stated that people say things they don’t mean sometimes. And then she made a serious mistake by announcing after her apology: “I is what I is. And I’m not changing.”
The Food Network, Smithfield Foods, Caeser’s Entertainment, Walmart, Target, Sears and Kmart all announced that they will no longer be carrying Paula Deen cookware or any other products due to her recent admission. Why wasn’t Deen’s apology enough to save her public image and career?
Many say Deen was focused too much on her own feelings instead of the feelings of the people that she hurt. But the greatest criticism of Deen centered upon the statement: “I is what I is. And I’m not changing.” These words hit a raw nerve because Deen didn't take responsibility for her speech, and she declared her unwillingness to even try to change.
We all say things at times that we don’t mean, but what do we do after we realize we have made a mistake? Can we really change?
Many years ago, my grandfather built up a clothing business with his brother. They started by selling shirts from pushcarts on the Lower East Side and eventually they owned a big store in Manhattan. One day after years of working side by side, my grandfather's brother turned on him. I never really knew what was said or why. Grandpa never liked to talk about it, but from that day on the brothers stopped speaking to each other. Grandpa took his share of the business and his brother kept the store. My grandfather never saw his nephews again who had been like sons to him. The families stopped inviting each other to their celebrations and avoided mentioning each other's names. By the time I was old enough to hear the story, there was a huge branch of my family tree that had basically been cut off forever.
Sometimes I used to ask Grandpa why he didn't try to call his brother and try to repair what was broken. "He'll never change. Too stubborn to say he's sorry. What's the difference? What's gone is gone," my Grandpa would say.
A year before my grandfather passed away he shocked all of us by going to visit his brother who was in a nursing home. It had been more than 40 years since they had seen each other and as soon as my grandfather's brother saw him, he grabbed his hand.
"You were right. I'm sorry. I should have never done what I did," he told my grandfather.
Afterwards Grandpa didn't really want to talk about it nor did he ever see his brother again. But I saw tears fill his eyes when he told me, "He finally said he was sorry. Too late now. But he changed. He said he was sorry."
We can repair what we’ve destroyed. It starts by taking responsibility.
I thought about all those lost years that could never be replaced. The holidays and the bar mitzvahs and the weddings. The separate lives and the families torn apart. It took illness and age to finally prod my grandfather's brother to face the truth inside of himself and to genuinely apologize. It may have been long overdue but he reached out his hand and pushed past his own stubbornness and pride, and did it. He changed.
We should never give up on ourselves by saying, "I is who I is. And I'm not changing." We can overcome the limitations of our pasts, faulty attitudes and the habits of our speech. It doesn't happen overnight, and it's not easy, but it's something we all should strive for.
Paula Deen lost an enormous amount of her life work – not because she made a mistake, but because she wasn't willing to take responsibility for what she did. It is hard to admit when we are wrong. It is hard to reach out and say, “You were right. I'm sorry.” While we still have the chance, even if years have passed, we can repair what we’ve destroyed. We can change how we speak and how we act.
It starts by taking responsibility. Maybe we need to love as if we are dying. Maybe we need to speak as if we are running out of time. Maybe we need to reach as if we are grasping for air itself. For that is what we need to do to really change. We need to want it as much as we want to breathe. Two elderly brothers reached out to each other, even for just a moment, and rebuilt what had been destroyed with those two words: I'm sorry.