Never Forgiving Yourself (isn't a virtue)
This afternoon, I found a basket of random stuff I hadn’t looked through for a couple years: expired movie passes, filters for the water dispenser, a couple postcards I think are beautiful, seven chapsticks and exactly 89 cents.
Also discovered were five slips of paper in different people’s handwriting saying the following:
Hating my family for their mental illness
Not being a family that has a sit-down dinner and all that that entails
I want to forgive myself for hating myself
Not forgiving others
For not pressing my husband to go to the doctor for his bronchitis - he probably would not have died if I did.
It took me a minute to remember what these were. Then it came to me. At a speaking event in 2021, I was talking about forgiveness and decided at the last minute to invite those present to write down something they wanted to forgive themselves for. When I found these notes, I said a little prayer for each of them, hoping that they are more free now than two years ago, that they have indeed forgiven themselves.
I don't know how you spend COVIDTIDE, that 18 months of staying at home, perhaps you learned Italian, or how to bake bread. Maybe you improved yourself physically or spiritually. And if so, good for you. I myself watched an INORDINATE amount of television. I’d like to be able to say it was all PBS specials and prestige television but I’ll confess to you that I watched 12 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and every single episode of a reality TV show called Alone - a survival test in which ten contestants are dropped into the wilderness with just ten tools of their choosing, and must provide shelter, food and water for themselves while entirely alone and filming the whole thing themselves – no camera crews.
Finding those little slips of paper reminded me of an early episode in which a woman (a retired cop), on the very first night she was alone, sets up the camera in her tent and starts to tell the story of who she is. Eventually she recalls a night, early in her career, when she had just gotten off duty and an active shooter report came over her radio. And because she wasn’t on duty, she hesitated a bit before turning the sqad car around to go check it out. But by the time she got there, the paramedics were carrying a young woman’s body out of the building. This was decades ago. She looks at the ground and says, “All I know is that if I just hadn’t hesitated, that girl would still be alive.”
I couldn’t stop saying to Eric, “That breaks my heart.”
It just breaks my heart. It felt as though in the decades since that night, that no matter how much good she did in the world, no matter how much she was loved, that her self-regard was trapped in the past…in a moment of regret. So much so that decades later, when alone and given the time to reflect, that is the story she tells about who she is, her internal gaze lands at that moment and does so without any compassion.
She could not let go of it.
Grace for others, but for me: just garbage.
Once I was telling my big sister about how much easier it is for me to preach grace to others than it is to extend it to myself.
“Oh that’s just pride” she replied.
I thought maybe not letting myself off the hook was closer to…humility, I guess? But now I think she’s right. On some level maybe I think that I should do better than everyone else. How arrogant.
I think I’ve always assumed that my inner critic, that accusing voice inside my head that is always telling me how far my actual self is from my ideal self . . . I’ve always assumed that I needed that voice, that somehow if I didn't criticize myself, I’d lose my edge – I’d just flail around in the quicksand of mediocrity. I’d become a quivering mass of unexamined character defects or at the very least I’d stop “improving”.
The one piece of work I’ve done that went viral was this video five years ago:
But what if YOU’RE the asshole?
I think the same thing applies. I think you are going to have to reach for the bolt cutters.
Because maybe you’re just not that special.
Maybe you are just like me and everyone else: part asshole, part angel. And you too have done and said things for which you are not proud, that you wish you could take back.
But maybe it’s time to Marie Kondo your resentments against yourself. You gotta take out the trash. Pretending it doesn’t smell only works for so long. Walk it to the curb, burn some incense, and move the fuck on.
You are a thousand times more than just the subtotal of your mistakes.
What I am saying is that were you ever dropped into the arctic with 10 survival tools and a video camera, were you ever to document that kind of solitude, I hope that you have practiced enough self-honesty and compassion, accountability and forgiveness to tell a story about who you are that is bigger and more beautiful than the most shitty moment. I hope you can speak of your past self with compassion.
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
So, beloveds, may you forgive yourselves.
May you forgive yourselves for not learning Italian.
May your forgive yourself for your worst parenting moments.
May you forgive yourself for all the times you didn't stand up for yourself.
May your forgive yourself for what you had to do to survive.
May you forgive yourself for the things you did when you just didn’t yet have the wisdom to do better.
May you forgive yourselves for the times you were a volunteer but you felt like a victim.
May you forgive yourself for giving pieces of your heart away to things and people and institutions that could never love you back.
May you forgive yourself for the jealousy you feel when you see others on social media look amazing and do amazing stuff and have amazing sex lives and have amazing times with their amazing friends. I know some of those people – I promise, it’s mostly bullshit anyway.
And if you are anxious and think you can’t do it, I understand. But also, you’re wrong.
Be brave, friends. But also, be gentle.
We’re all new at this part.
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