The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. —Mahatma Gandhi
Forgiveness is a challenging topic, and a rather sobering one for a Friday. Normally, I try to keep things a bit lighter as we head into the weekend, but my instinct, or my gut, or whatever you want to call that nagging voice in the back of my head tells me to go with it. We need forgiveness and we especially need to forgive ourselves.
This is important. I want my boys to see this not because of anything they’ve done but because, as humans, they will inevitably do something that lingers on their conscience. Forgiving ourselves is a lesson we are challenged to learn because we must first have a reason to learn it, and that reason is often painful.
Also, before we get too deep into the conversation, I want you to know that the examples I use here are intentionally fictional. I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, so to speak, and I’m certainly not inclined to make any great confessions of my own faults. Confession is good for the soul, but not for the Internet.
Let’s start, however, by taking a look at a new short film by the folks at Pixar. This isn’t the same fun, cheerful, feel-good type of film we usually see from the animation company. What we see here strikes a dark tone and, honestly, I’m not sure I would recommend it for young children unless you are ready, as a parent, to hold a serious conversation. The film runs a little over six minutes. Take a look:
[This video source doesn’t always scale well for some mobile devices. If you’re having difficulty viewing the video, you can find the original on Vimeo]
We’ve All Been There, Sort Of
Borrowed Time is one of those poignant little films that one almost wishes were longer, but at the same time we’re rather glad it isn’t. Emotion that strong carried out for the length of a feature film would be difficult for a lot of people to handle. The short film is challenging enough. The producers behind the film wanted to quickly, briefly, drive home the point that it’s not only okay to forgive ourselves, but that forgiveness is necessary if we are to continue living.
We’ve been there. Okay, perhaps we didn’t accidentally kill our fathers as they clung desperately to the side of a cliff. We’ve done other things, though; things we shove to the back of our mind and try to not think about. Letting a dying aunt suffer in pain because you stole her Percoset. Beating up that little kid when you were eight-years-old because you were angry about being abused yourself. The night you let a drunk friend drive away and they killed someone with their car.
Those experiences, those moments of personal trauma, never really go away. You remember the look of pain, the pleading, in your victim’s eyes. Maybe you remember screams or cries for help. Or maybe you just remember the silence as you did nothing. We do our best to hide those memories. The past is the past. That all happened when you were young and didn’t know better. Yet, those pictures still haunt your mind. No one else in the world may know what you did, but you do. If you dare think about it very long you fear you’ll go mad.
Some Things We Can’t Fix
Recovery programs often include a step called “making amends,” doing something to make up for the wrong you’ve done in the past. The exercise is appropriate for some discrepancies, but there are some things we do, the really big things, that simply can’t be fixed, ever. Like the young man in the film, there’s no bringing his father back. We see the pain in his eyes, drawn beautifully by the Pixar animators, and know that he has replayed that scenario over and over in his mind, trying to find some way to fix it, looking for scenarios where his finger doesn’t find that trigger. There’s no changing what happened, though.
How do we get beyond this? How do we pick ourselves up and keep moving? For the man in the film, it was a matter of revisiting the site of that most horrible event, walking among the skeletons of dead horses and a decayed stage coach, feeling the desert wind, and finding his father’s watch. Everything happened in a neat package of six minutes. For most of us, however, forgiveness takes a little bit longer than six minutes.
Let me say right here that if you have a matter of guilt, justified or not, that is interrupting your life to a severe degree, seek professional help. You don’t have to do this on your own. Finding a path to forgiving yourself is not safe for everyone. If you’re prone to depression, have had thoughts of suicide or harming yourself, don’t address such emotional matters on your own. Don’t even try.
For the rest of us, though, there are multiple ways of finding your path to self-forgiveness.
Identifying What Really Happened
Memory is a tricky thing that loves to mix up the facts. The further removed we are from an event, the more likely it is that we are getting at least some of the facts wrong. This is why witness testimony is often unreliable. Our memories are easily influenced by external sources, including our dreams, and therefore unreliable.
So, before you continue beating yourself up over something, consider what actually happened. Get the facts straight. Try to understand what your motivations were at the time and how the circumstances participated in your action. Come to grips with the decisions you made and how the consequences of those decisions affected you and other people.
Only when we are totally honest with ourselves about what we did and why we did it can we begin to move forward. Again, this can be a very emotional and difficult step. Don’t be afraid to ask for professional help.
Mistakes Don’t Make You A Bad Person
There are few truly horrible people in the world. There are a lot of people whose actions are misunderstood and regrettable, but the number of genuinely murderous, maniacal beasts are actually small enough that you’re probably not among them. Unless you’re burying bodies in your backyard or somewhere, you have hope.
Society likes to label people and, especially throughout the 1980s and early 90s we, as a nation, were obsessed with labeling “bad guys.” The whole “three strikes” program that sentenced repeat felony offenders to life in jail, is a sad commentary of how quickly our society just gives up and throws people in the trash. The personal effect of that philosophy is that we become willing to throw ourselves away, also.
When you have someone tell you that YOU are valuable, they’re not just pandering to you. You are not a bad person. What you did might have been very wrong, but it does not rob you of your humanity. Even if you vote for the Republican nominee for President, as deplorable an act as that might prove to be, you are still not a bad person. You are capable of love and of being loved. Don’t every forget that.
You Can Start Over
Too many people feel that they cannot escape their pasts. Granted, sometimes making that jump is difficult. I can think of one acquaintance right now whose past is chasing him like a hound dog. He feels that he can’t catch a break because every time he turns around something he did in the past raises its ugly head and knocks him back down. When that happens you have but one move: start over.
Leave town. Change jobs. Go back to school and study something completely different. Select a radically different group of friends. Become someone who makes you proud. You can do it. This isn’t a new path that no one’s been down before. In fact, this path is so well-worn that it’s deep-rutted from use. Forgiveness means, at some level, shutting forever those doors to the past and making a conscious decision that you are moving on with your life.
Yes, starting over is scary. I get that. Again, we’ve been there. You can do it, though. You deserve this.
Learn From Your Mistakes
You’ve heard this advice before. Just as it applies to other less traumatic mistakes in our lives, it applies to the big stuff as well. Okay, so you totally blew it. Part of the forgiveness process is learning what to do differently so that we don’t make those mistakes again. Sure, we hope the circumstances that led to that error don’t re-occur. Part of learning may be knowing how to avoid the circumstances that put you in the position to do whatever you did wrong. Fate sometimes intervenes, however. You need to be ready.
Life throws us a lot of curves. We never know when a situation might arise that requires us to make a critical decision. One does not always have the luxury to sit and reason through the possibilities and possible consequences. When those moments come, it is our experiences that teach us how to respond. Those who have frequent mistakes in their lives are better equipped to know what not to do, which inherently puts them closer to the correct action.
What happened in the past can make you a better person today and into the future. We make better choices. We avoid dangerous circumstances. We are able to forgive ourselves and continue living.
Notice that I’ve not excused anyone’s behavior. The man in the short film was placed in a situation where any number of accidents could have occurred and a most horrible one did. Not everything bad that happens to us is an accident, though. When we intentionally make bad decisions there is no excuse.
What we must do instead is forgive. Not forget, mind you, but forgive. Forgiveness opens our souls, our consciousness so that we can move on and achieve great things. We diminish our potential when we bind ourselves with guilt. As humans, we are capable of truly amazing things when we remove all the obstacles that we place in front of ourselves. The process of forgiveness helps clear the way for us. We move on. The clock starts ticking again.
Time is elusive, though. Don’t wait. The longer we hold onto that guilt the tighter we bind ourselves.
Give yourself permission to live. Forgive.