Just a few of the headlines (emphasis mine):
‘Sask. government walks back cuts to grants-in-lieu for some municipalities’ (CBC).
“Trump walks back Giuliani: ‘He’ll get his facts straight” (CNN).
‘U.S. trade advisor Peter Navarro walks back ‘special place in hell’ comment about Justin Trudeau’ (Financial Review).
What’s with all this ‘walking back’? I must be new to the English language because it seems like this is an expression I’ve only been hearing in the last few months.
What is walking back anyway? What does walking back even mean? And where did it come from? More importantly, why haven’t I heard of it until the last few months? I don’t recall being in a coma or getting caught in a time warp, so how did I miss it? And if I was in a time warp, would I even know? And did I go forward, back or just stand still in time? Did I age while in the time warp? Was it aliens who did it to me? What else did the aliens suck out of my brain besides my ability to dance and do math? I must have time warped during the ’80s because they’re pretty much a blur…
Anyway, concerned as I was about the time warp thing, I decided to look instead for the earliest use of the term. The best I could find was an historical reference used in 2007 but I’m told the earliest use was more likely in 2000. Still, why do people use the term ‘walk back’? I needed to know because all the cool politicians are using it.
So I looked up some dictionary definitions. One reminded me that walking back meant using legs and steps to return to a place where I had been previously. Warmer, but not what I was after…
More helpful was Merriam-Webster, ‘… to retreat from or distance oneself from (a previously stated opinion or position)’ as was Oxford Dictionary’s wording, ‘Retract a statement or reverse an action or decision.’
So, if I’m clear about this – and I think I am – walking back is a way of saying ‘I made a mistake’, or ‘I am sorry’ or ‘I was wrong’. Walking back is what you do when you get caught. It’s a way of being apologetic without being crass … or apologetic.
Come to think of it, this will make it a lot easier to be married! Instead of saying ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’ I can just say, ‘I walk that back’. Just feels nicer, easier.
Or when I steal a parking spot from an elderly woman, ‘Oops, it’s okay old lady, I’ll walk that back when I finish shopping!’
I see now that ‘walking back’ has lot’s of potential. It’s sure better than being wrong or sorry … at least that’s how I see it.
But of course that’s the point. It might be just my perception but it seems like ‘walking back’ is easier than being wrong; a cleaner, gentler, more civilized way of fixing things when we are actually dirty and selfish. I cynically suspect that’s why politicians have latched on to it.
However I suspect walking back is easier to say than it is to do because of our idol of pride.
Early in the New Testament book of Matthew we find a man named John helping people to embrace ‘I’m sorry’ or the more theological word repentance. He is confronted by – you guessed it – self-righteous religious people who John refers to as ‘vipers’ (not how to make friends, John).
He then challenges them strongly saying, ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ In other words, acting piously (and saying you’re sorry) is empty if you don’t back it up with your actions.
The original ancient word for repentance is metanoeó meaning to change one’s mind. But even better, it’s from a root word, metá, which means “changed after being with”. Think about it – changed after being with…
Hmm. In my experience, a true ‘I’m sorry’ only comes from my heart when I’m with someone; looking into the eyes of the person I’m apologizing to. When I choose to be close with the person I actually see how my words and attitude are wrong and how my selfishness has cut and trivialized someone else. That’s when an apology, or walking back, becomes life-giving.
Speaking as a grizzled veteran of many ‘I’m sorry’ and related walk backs, there is nothing quite like being wrong and owning up to it. To admit that I’m messy and not perfect is actually quite freeing – I see myself more clearly and don’t have to protect, guard, manipulate, word-craft, dominate, sidestep, make excuses… We can only grow through the hard exercise of coming to terms with our own wrongness.
Whether it’s another person or God himself, when I’m truly with them is when my heart and actions can follow my words and the ‘I’m sorry’ takes on it’s intended beauty and potential.