Can You Forgive Yourself?
by Kent Nerburn
Most of us have some corner where we cannot forgive ourselves. Sometimes it is obvious: the mother who leaves her child unattended for a moment and the child wanders into the street and a terrible death; the son who refuses to speak to his parents for years and realizes his errors only after they are gone.
But sometimes it is more subtle, and well buttressed with explanations and rationalizations: The abortion was necessary because we had neither the financial nor the emotional resources to bring another child into the world. The divorce was the only way to free two hearts from a destructive downward spiral. The harsh words we said to our children were for their own good. The time we spent at our job rather than with our family was necessary to provide them with the quality of life they deserved.
Perhaps our decisions were right, or necessary, or inevitable. Perhaps they were capricious and unwarranted. But we made them, and they are now and forever part of our lives. Still, our hearts ache for the choices made or denied, and we bury that ache beneath a blanket of guilt or high-minded justifications.
We need to find the hidden corners of our lives where we have not forgiven ourselves -- for who we are, for who we are not. And it is not always easy. Sometimes we have to dig through tragic emotional wreckage. Sometimes we have to rip open scars we think have long been healed. Sometimes we have to tear down beautifully crafted psychological edifices. But to live with a pure heart and open spirit, we must have the courage to face these challenges.
Human beings are strange and miraculous creations. From our first moment on earth we are hurtling toward uniqueness and individuation. We revel in that uniqueness and find our identity in that individuation. But this sense of our own uniqueness and singularity comes at a price. For, with every door of understanding that is opened by the circumstances or choices of our lives, a wealth of others are closed. The child surrounded by joy does not learn the same world as the child surrounded with sadness. The child filled with fear does not discover the same world as the child filled with curiosity. I didn't know the same world as a child whose father went out every day to officiate at weddings, or the same world as the child with no father present at all. Every nuance of character and circumstance shuts out possibility even as it reveals the world in growing clarity and fullness. We become who we are at the expense of who we are not.
Emotionally healthy people accept this individuation with a sense of humility. They know that we are children of chance, and that we must develop our lives and give thanks for the miracle of life as it has been handed to us. They celebrate their uniqueness -- with all its possibilities and limitations -- build upon it, and use it as a way to contribute to the rich tapestry of humanity.
Emotionally unhealthy people, on the other hand, do not so readily give thanks for the shape life takes. They turn against themselves, refusing to embrace who they are, and go through life with the sense that their world is not enough. They are not rich enough, they are not smart enough, they are not pretty enough; they haven't gotten the right chances, the breaks have all gone someone else's way. Quick to see any deficiency in their own situation, they are slow to celebrate the gifts life has given them. The miracle of their uniqueness becomes instead the prison of their limitations. They define themselves by what they are not.
Most of us, however, lie somewhere in between. We're reasonably happy with our lives, but look with longing at the road not taken. We retain a lifelong ambivalence about who we are, and never fully grasp the potential that our unique life experiences offer us. We see the smallness of our lives, not the greatness of our gifts, and feel deficient in relation to those we hold as models of success and accomplishment.
We must learn to resist this. Until we can embrace our lives wholeheartedly, aware of our limitations and committed to making the most of our unique circumstances and gifts, we have not fully accepted ourselves for the people we are, or fully forgiven ourselves for the people we are not.
I will never be Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi, or even the gentle, soft-spoken man down the street. I will never be as hardworking as my father. I will never be a mountain climber or a buddha or someone who bikes across the United States. I will never be a saint.
But I will always be a good listener, a faithful friend, a person whose word can be trusted. I will always stand by the weak and protect the innocent. But I will also be a person filled with righteous indignation at the injustices in the universe, a person prone to deep solitudes and possessed of a dark cast of spirit and perhaps overly aware that tragedy can strike in the middle of the night.
In short, I will be a person like everybody else -- a unique and fallible human being, possessed of conflicting and sometimes contradictory characteristics, whose life is full of moments of brightness and moments of dark impenetrable shadow; a person at once more than I had hoped but less than I had dreamed.
I must learn to accept this person and to embrace him. I must learn to look at the unique constellation of skills and attributes I have, the strange character twists and quirks I've developed, the quality of my own passions and the subtlety of my own deceptions. I must learn to acknowledge my fears, respect my own dreams, and measure them only against the simple standard of how they help make this a better world for the people around me and the generations that come after me.
If I am able to do this, I will not try to be what I am not, but I will try to make the most of what I am. And, in doing this, I will forgive myself for all the possibilities that didn't take flower in me, and will honor them whenever I see them present in others.
This is the first and most necessary step upon the path of forgiveness. If I am not accepting of myself, all that is good in others will either be a mirror of my own deficiencies, or a cause of envy, or a way of life against which I must protect myself with cynicism or contempt.
Life cannot be lived this way. It is too short, too precious, too important. There are children out there who need my help; there is a family that relies on me for love. There are people I meet on the street and in chance encounters whose lives can be either better or worse for the moment's contact we share.
I must measure myself in these moments, not in some abstract valuation of my own spiritual accomplishments or against the accomplishments of others. I am who I am, and I must honor the vision of life I have been given. If that vision shuts out other people, I must work to change it. If it allows me to give and to open myself to others, I must foster it.
We are, to the best of our knowledge, given only one go-round on this earth. We are thrown together with a group of strangers who share our passage through time, and, together, we leave as a generation and become, both literally and figuratively, the soil on which future generations walk.
It is our responsibility, both singly and together, to prepare this earth for those who follow. The moments we confront in our lives will never be confronted by anyone else. The encounters we have are unique in this universe. All that we can do is meet the moments we have been granted with a humble and caring heart, and share the gifts we have been given with those whose lives brush against ours.
In this way -- in this active claiming of our own fallible self, and shaping it for a life of service -- we open our hearts to the possibility of forgiveness. Rather than railing against our deficiencies, or constructing justifications for them, we see them as part of our unique life and circumstances, and look for the moment when the unique person we are is needed, and offer ourselves in service, humbly, and like a prayer.
It is no crime to be less than our dreams, or to stumble and fall on life's path. The crime is in refusing to get up and move toward the light, or in being unwilling to embrace those around us who have fallen in their own way.
We will never be as good or worthy as we wish to be. We will be human -- too human -- and we will fall short of our hopes for ourselves over and over again. If we can forgive ourselves for our failures -- not seven times, but seventy times seven -- we can forgive others for their failures. We know that we are all humans, struggling by the lights we have toward our vision of good.
As I sit here now, I think of the life that might have been, and the man I longed to be. I see the hollow reed of pure spiritual consciousness, the instrument of God's peace, that I dreamed of being when I was a child. And I know that it was good.
But then I think of my family, with each of us struggling to find form, struggling to dream, struggling to make sense of the world around us, but always finding in our common love a solid rock on which to build our lives, and it, too, is good. That I have been given such a gift is humbling beyond words. A life of solitary spiritual rigor would have been different, but it would have been no more worthy.
I could not have dreamed this life, could not have invented it from the whole cloth of my imagination. It is a miracle in its uniqueness, a treasure of unexpected grace. Though I am not what I thought I should be, I am more than I might ever have hoped. As 1 survey the landscape of my life, I am overcome with a sense of wonder.
Somewhere, another man, much like me, may be living a life of pure spiritual consciousness, unencumbered with fragmentary personal emotions, able to enter the lives and hearts of those he meets because his own heart is empty of concern with self. But I am not that man. I walk the streets, full of loves and fears and angers and dreams, tethered to family and worldly cares. Yet I know, in my heart, that whenever there is a call in the night, I will rise from my sleep and offer such nourishment and consolation as I am able. It is the least I can do as thanks for the miraculous gift of life that has been given to me.