Forgiveness X (on self-forgiveness)

In Eat Pray Love (before you roll your eyes at how much of a stereotypical white girl I am for quoting that book, just read the quote, I promise it’s good), Elizabeth Gilbert quotes a nun she meets in India, who tells her that “guilt is just the ego’s way of tricking you into thinking you’re making moral progress.” As someone who’s very prone to feeling guilty, often excessively/disproportionately, I needed to read that. Productive guilt, which involves accountability, is a good and necessary thing. Unproductive guilt (self-pity and self-flagellation) is a torture chamber that helps no one– not yourself or the people you’ve hurt.

___________________________________________________________

Today,
I read a letter online
written by someone who’d lived a through tragic childhood
with an absent father
and an abusive mother.
There was so much pain,
so much anger.

Before the mother had died,
she and the writer
had made amends
after a long period of separation.
The writer had told her
he loved her
and it was okay to go.
Understandably,
even now,
even after all of that,
he still wasn’t okay.

I read the letter
and I sobbed
from all the beauty
and all the pain.

Then, I rose above my body,
I watched myself reading,
I watched myself sobbing,
and I watched myself rewriting
the narrative I’d been holding
of myself.

This woman here, sobbing
is not evil and irredeemable
as her shame
may have her believe.
She is a deeply flawed person
who still feels empathy,
who still loves,
and who is capable of change.

Whether we like it or not,
we must see the humanity
in ourselves,
regardless of what we
have done.

At the end of the day,
the question of whether or not
we deserve our own forgiveness
is irrelevant,
because we cannot move forward
without it.

Seeing ourselves as monsters
is a disservice to both ourselves
and those we have hurt.
It’s a copout.
It’s selfish.
It disavows real accountabilily
in favor of a cheap imitation: self-pity.

A monster
is born monstrous.
It does monstrous things
by its nature,
not by choice.

Whether or not
this is our intention,
if we see ourselves
as inherently evil,
we excuse
our bad choices,
and we deprive ourselves
of the opportunity
to move forward
and choose better.

We cannot expect
those we’ve hurt
to forgive us.
That’s THEIR journey,
and THEIR choice.
Wanting to control
how others handle their pain,
especially pain we caused,
is deeply inappropriate,
intrusive,
manipulative,
and
emotionally violent.

They don’t have to set us free.
It’s not their job.
But it’s our job
to set ourselves free.
And we do that
through accountability.
Real freedom
involves responsibility–
freedom and responsibility
go hand in hand.

In the words of a wise ex-boyfriend,
quoting his Catholic roots,
we address
our past mistakes
through
“remorse and penance.”
We cannot undo
what was done,
but we can, and must,
move forward
and do better.
We can, and must,
find and take
a healthier course of action
to give ourselves evidence
that we are changing.
This is how we earn
our own respect
back.

___________________________________________________________

Writing/ideas referenced in this poem:

1. If you’re interested, here’s the letter I was referring to.
2. No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu: Tutu introduced me to the idea that viewing someone as a monster takes away their accountability; and, on the other hand, seeing someone’s humanity and complexity holds them more deeply responsible. I loved that perspective, and his perspectives on things generally– the man is brilliant.
3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl: The author of the book’s afterword describes how Frankl sees freedom and responsibility as two sides of the same coin, quoting a Frankl saying, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” Though Frankl presumably was not discussing self-forgiveness specifically, I thought this idea could definitely apply to the poem. (Also– if you haven’t read this book, I *highly* recommend it!)

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