Self-Forgiveness: Beginning Again in Love
“Like most Jewish kids,” says Huffington Post writer Annette Powers, “Yom Kippur was the one holiday I dreaded. Growing up, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar promised nothing but endless hours spent in a gloomy sanctuary. All the adults, cranky and with bad breath from fasting, stood around muttering droning prayers in a language I didn’t understand.” She goes on to say, “After my Bat Mitzvah, I felt obligated to fast also, and then Yom Kippur took on a new kind of pain. By mid-afternoon, I was dizzy with hunger and the thought of four more hours in synagogue seemed unbearable. I understood that the point of the holiday was to atone, but thoughts of repentance were overshadowed by thoughts of the bagels and blintzes I would devour at the end of the service.”
Does this speak to your experience, if you grew up observing Yom Kippur? The work of atonement is intense. “Ye shall have holy convocation and ye shall afflict your soul” says the Jewish scriptures, and it’s only when Annette Powers is older and has gone through a divorce and experienced similar kinds of challenging “classes” in the School of Hard Knocks does she start to truly appreciate the power of Yom Kippur. You get older, your innocence gets shaken up by something you do or something done to you, and suddenly you understand what’s trying to happen in the gloomy sanctuary, what the fasting is all about, what the droning prayers are for … and thoughts of bagels and blintzes simply bounce off the bubble of your focus.
Brings to mind a passage from a book I read recently by Alice Hoffman, entitled Here on Earth. The main character is returning to the town she grew up in. On the way to her old house which she hasn’t seen for twenty years, she drives by a stone wall, and a memory comes back to her: of how she used to “balance, arms out, ready for anything.” How she “truly believed that she carried her own fate in the palm of her hand, as if destiny was nothing more than a green marble or a robin’s egg, a trinket any silly girl could scoop up and keep.” How she “believed that all you wanted, you would eventually receive, and that fate was a force which worked with, not against you.” Not any more, though. Now she’s weary with disappointment. She’s hurting. Needing to be forgiven, and to forgive. Needing exactly the kind of renewal that Yom Kippur promises if we give ourselves to it.
Forgiveness. An excellent definition of this blessed capacity comes from the psychology department of Stanford University, one of its recent experiments. “Forgiveness,” goes the definition, “consists primarily of taking less personal offense, reducing anger and the blaming of the offender, and developing an increased understanding of situations that lead to hurt and anger.” But I want to tweak this definition somewhat, since the specific angle I want to take this evening is on SELF-forgiveness. So let’s talk about how we might take less personal offense at ourselves for the wrongs we have done, how we might reduce anger and blame towards ourselves, how we can develop an increased understanding of who we are and what we are reaching for.
The need to talk about this is suggested by something from the Yom Kippur liturgy we will all say together tonight: “I’m sorry for being so hard on myself; I deny myself so many joys of life.” Yes, it’s true that the Bible says, “Ye shall afflict your soul”—it’s true that this is a part of atonement—but the problem is that we go overboard. We don’t just fast—we become positively athletic about it, we become morally anorexic. We give that constant critical inner voice free reign to terrorize ourselves. We replay scenes of ourselves at our ugliest over and over again, in our minds. We do this until we are simply numb with self-disgust, afraid to make a move lest we screw up again…..
Maybe it’s this way because we are suspicious towards forgiving ourselves. Because we think that self-forgiveness is really only a matter of allowing ourselves to get away with murder. It’s just rationalizing our hurtful deed away. It’s just irresponsibility. To any person of conscience, this is simply unacceptable. So why not indulge in self-bludgeoning? Why not trust the voice of shame within us? There’s more virtue in that than moral apathy, for sure. We’ll take moral masochism over moral apathy any day.
But here’s what I hope you get from my talk tonight. That this kind of thinking not only betrays a complete misunderstanding of genuine self-forgiveness, it also prevents us from doing the honest and hard work that our mistakes call us to: the work of atonement, of making amends. Self-punishment and moral masochism and whatever else you want to call it (helicopter parenting of the self?) block us from doing justice to all concerned—to the others affected and to ourselves. Justice requires us to stay fluid in and responsive to our world, but instead we find ourselves frozen and brittle and cut off. We feel rotten to the core, worthless. Disqualified from the kind of mercy and compassion that we so easily show others and that we know God shows to everybody else, no matter what. Everybody else but ourselves.
Catholic priest Greg Boyle knows this all too well in his work with inner city gangs. “There is a palpable sense of disgrace strapped like an oxygen tank to the back of every homie I know, “ he writes. “[The] principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down. I asked a homie once, after Mass at a probation camp, if he had any brothers and sisters. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I have one brother and one sister,’ and then he’s quick to add, with emphasis, ‘but THEY’RE GOOD.’ ‘Oh,’ I tell him, ‘and that would make YOU…’ ‘Here,’ he says, ‘locked up.’ ‘And THAT would make you…?’ I try again. ‘Bad,’ he says. What Greg Boyle knows is that unless that homie finds a way to believe again in himself—that he is fundamentally good and that that fundamental goodness will give him the power to stop doing the bad things that got him locked up—if he can’t believe in that, then he’s dead in the water. We are too, if we feel shame like him.
Yom Kippur calls us to something better in our lives. Not death, but renewal. And self-forgiveness is the way.
So how do we take less personal offense at ourselves for the wrongs we have done and reduce anger and blame towards ourselves? How do we develop an increased understanding of who we are and what we are reaching for?
Three things to do: release shame—that’s number 1, number 2 is allow good guilt to move you into making appropriate amends, and number 3 is resolve to learn all you can from your mistake and grow from it.
Start by releasing shame, which means, among other things, restoring trust in one’s own self. “May no trial,” says our Yom Kippur liturgy, “however severe, embitter our souls and destroy our trust.” And so, when you come across a memory in which you think you should have acted differently, remember what is always true about everyone: we do the best we can given what we know at the time and what we are dealing with. It’s just so easy to look back at our mistake and say, How stupid I was! What was I thinking? Such self-disparagement betrays a forgetfulness of how complex that moment was when we did what we did…. So tell yourself, when that painful memory of something hurtful comes up yet again, “What I did fell short—but it was the best I could do at the time, all things considered.” The great philosopher Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” So in your meeting with the self you once were, be kind. Try to walk a mile in the shoes of that person you were 30 years ago or 10 years ago or even a year ago, when you did what you did that so mortifies you now. Try to do that. It helps restore self-trust.
Another part of releasing shame is unclenching and softening. Truly opening to the idea that to be human is to be imperfect—and that we are beautiful and loveable and acceptable anyway. We are good enough. Sometimes this realization happens in very unexpected ways. Here’s how it happened to therapist Brad Waters. He made a big mistake. He dropped his key ring outside of his condo building—a key ring that held the entire set of his building’s entry keys. The security of his entire building compromised! Anyone and everyone in it—suddenly vulnerable! He was utterly miserable. Later that afternoon, after searching for hours, he found that some passerby had kindly placed the lost keys on the condo’s fence. But,” says Brad Waters, “it was too late for my overactive imagination. I had already assumed that the other residents would be angry with me, that I would have to pay a lot of money to change the locks, and that they would never ever ever ever again trust me. I doomed myself to guilt, despair and social ostracism. I might just as well have worn a hairshirt and never again left the confines of my condo. Or something like that.” But then, here’s what actually happened: he called the condo association president, told him what happened, and what he essentially said was, “No big deal, I don’t like carrying around all those keys either.” Then I emailed the other building residents and they replied, in a nutshell, “Eh, these things happen. Forget about it.” But now listen to how Brad took this surprising kindness: “Wait a minute, I thought. Where’s the lashing? I practically invited thievery and vandalism into our building and this is how you treat me? With forgiving kindness? How dare you!” Fact is, when you are in touch with your humanity, you can’t help but respond to another who confesses his or her sin, “These things happen.” This is not a matter of condoning what happened. It’s a matter of acknowledging that the best of us, given the right circumstances, are capable of doing the worst things. Welcome to the human race. And you are loved anyway.
That’s step one: release shame. Now comes step two: make appropriate amends. Guilt is very different from shame, in that guilt is feeling bad about something concrete you did, whereas shame is feeling bad about who you are at your core. One motivates action and positive change, the other paralyzes you and makes you feel that positive change is impossible. So feel your guilt, and let that guilt push you into action.
But now what might that look like? A good start is saying “I’m sorry,” and we say that a lot during Yom Kippur. But there’s more. How about a willingness to listen to another person’s hurt nondefensively? An important caveat is that if your disclosure would harm the other person or others (as in “I’m sorry I slept with your husband. Oh, you didn’t know??”) then one must find another way to make amends indirectly. Pray for that person. For the sake of that person, help others. Do what you can.
“Pay your dues,” says Juliana Breines, PhD. “Just as you probably wouldn’t forgive someone else until they make it up to you in some way, forgiving yourself may be most beneficial when you feel like you’ve actually earned it. So,” she asks, “how do you know when you’ve adequately paid your dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if you borrow your friend’s favorite sweater and lose it, you would probably want to find a way to replace it, at minimum), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. Receiving forgiveness from others can help facilitate self-forgiveness, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide when you’ve done enough to right a wrong.” Dr. Breines goes on to say, “Even certain forms of self-punishment may be useful when motivated by a desire for self-improvement rather than anger at the self, though researchers recommend that such punishment be mild and time-limited, and never physically or psychologically harmful. For example, a teenager who engages in shoplifting and feels remorse might decide to refrain from shopping for three months and instead focus on her schoolwork.” Definitely the time-bound character of self-discipline needs to be emphasized here. If it feels like there’s nothing you can do to pay your dues—that specific concrete actions will never be enough—then watch out! Shame has infected your guilt. Keep your guilt pure. True guilt goes away over time. Fake guilt is just shame in disguise, and it never ends, and it kills the soul….
Finally, there’s step three. Step one is release shame, step two is pay your dues, and step three is resolve to learn all you can from what you did. Carpe diem: seize the day. If you fumbled the ball in the big game, pick it up again and keep running. Don’t give up on your life, on what you are trying to become. Remember, the goal of self-forgiveness is to do justice to all people involved—the others affected and yourself. You are an essential part of the equation too. So what does your mistake say about who you are and what you are trying to become? What if, in fact, we saw our mistakes as wake-up calls, as symptoms of trying (however fumblingly) to become something better?
It’s the learning journey that we also talk about on Yom Kippur. “From innocence to awareness, from ignorance to knowing, from foolishness to discretion, and then perhaps to wisdom.” There is no greater teacher than the consequences of our actions. If living well is the best revenge, then learning well is the best amends. In your improved living and learning, manifest your atonement.
Just yesterday I was delighted to discover a book entitled Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, by Kathryn Schulz. “If we relish being right and regard it as our natural state,” she says, “you can imagine how we feel about being wrong. For one thing, we tend to view it as rare and bizarre — an inexplicable aberration in the normal order of things. For another, it leaves us feeling idiotic and ashamed. Like the term paper returned to us covered in red ink, being wrong makes us cringe and slouch down in our seat; it makes our heart sink and our dander rise. At best we regard it as a nuisance, at worst a nightmare, but in either case — and quite unlike the gleeful little rush of being right — we experience our errors as deflating and embarrassing.”
But then Kathryn Schulz says, “Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. [F]ar from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world. … [H]owever disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, that can teach us who we are.”
Everyone has a memory of a time of innocence when, walking upon a fence, walking through life, we used to “balance, arms out, ready for anything.” And then we fell. We found ourselves doing things that we never thought we might do. But Yom Kippur, in its emphasis on self-forgiveness, says, You don’t have to give up on yourself. You can get back up on that fence, get back to balancing. Do it even better than before. You can keep moving forward. You can.