“At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being. In refusing to wait; in extending forgiveness to others now; we begin the long journey of becoming the person who will be large enough, able enough and generous enough to receive, at the very end, that absolution ourselves.” ~David Whyte
The last time I saw my mother she was smiling and laughing at nothing in particular. My mother has had dementia for almost ten years now. Each visit brings an onslaught of guilt and uncomfortable feelings. Could I have done something different to ease this for her?
For years I discounted my heritage and all my ancestors, and in doing so devalued her. How could I have been so heartless? How could I have stayed out all night and worried her to death when I was in my twenties? Why didn’t I stay with her in Boston after I married? The list goes on and on.
I can count each transgression and easily relive the selfishness of a younger version of me. I want to reach back in time and slap that younger self, admonishing her for losing out on caring for the person that loves her most.
I want to send her the warning that time is running out and she is wasting it on trivialities, ego-centric activities, and hurtful behavior. But I cannot reach back in time, and for many years I carried the burden of a wild adolescence that had no regard for the one who cared most about me.
There have been times when, on bent knee, I pleaded silently and tearfully for her forgiveness, but she would have none of it. She simply continued her incoherent storytelling with a smile and eyes that were viewing something in the distant past. The best I could do was to stay present with her in her story, allowing her to share whatever needed to arise unconditionally.
And then it happened.
During one visit I was again listening to her storytelling, laughing with her, sharing her jokes and following the winding path of her conversation when she suddenly stopped. Something in her eyes shifted. It was as if a light turned on for a moment. And then she said it, even using my name, which she had not recalled for years.
“Alicia, I’m fine. Let it go. Focus on your life and move on. I’m fine.”
And with the same suddenness she disappeared into the fog, her eyes coated with the same film that hides the chapters of her life. I burst into tears.
Grace is Found in Forgiveness
We discover grace in forgiveness. We unburden the baggage we carry with us when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Transgressions, real or perceived, carry an energetic and negative tether that creates a network of dark knots that expands as we continue to carry these transgressions through our relationships and into our lives.
We believe that others hold the ability to release us through their forgiveness. When we surrender the power to forgiveness to someone else we lose the ability to recover our goodness and worth. In truth, we each hold the power to forgive simply because we are the ones that need to forgive ourselves.
In the moment that my mother spoke I felt a release and then an awareness that the forgiveness I attributed to her was really within me. I needed to forgive myself for my behavior and lack of awareness that created the guilt I carried with me. What my mother did was make me aware that I needed to “move on.” And to do so meant to forgive myself.
5 Reasons We Have to Forgive Ourselves
1. The other person may not forgive you.
For years, I was haunted by past transgressions that caused harm to someone else. The sting of the lies of the past and the impact on those that I cared about caused such shame in me that I became rigid about what was right and wrong. There was no one to call for forgiveness. Those relationships existed in the past and have long since moved on.
I had to forgive the teenager and the young woman who foolishly thought the world revolved around her needs.
If you look back into the past you’ll notice you may be carrying shame too. It’s time to forgive the person you were so that the person you are can keep growing.
2. If you don’t forgive yourself then how will you keep going?
You can’t make changes or move forward in your life carrying the weight of your mistakes.
Imagine putting all your past mistakes into a bag, adding to it each time you make a new one. The bag would become so heavy, the burden so great, that it would be impossible to keep going.
It’s time to put that bag down, take out each item, and forgive so you can let go of the past and move forward, having learned the lessons that will make you a better person than before.
3. You can’t forgive others if you can’t forgive yourself.
You have to learn how to forgive, starting with yourself. If you cannot offer yourself compassion and forgiveness, you will never be able to offer the same to others.
Life’s missteps are an opportunity to learn. These mistakes are useful in that they point you away from the person you do not want to be and reveal the path of growth and authenticity that you can choose for your life.
4. The shame of the past can only be transformed through forgiveness.
I confess that I intentionally caused hurt to others out of ignorance or narcissism before I realized what true connection and love were. I’ve learned that when I lash out, it is a projection of the anger or discomfort I feel toward myself. Unless I forgive myself, I will carry that anger into the world and project it onto others.
Change your anger into a call to attend to something that is hurting within you. Forgiveness is the alchemy that transforms shame into self-love.
5. To accept and value yourself you must embrace both virtues and flaws.
We human beings are flawed. We must accept that we are not perfect. We make mistakes, and sometimes we make mistakes that hurt others. However, our mistakes do not define us. They are opportunities to learn about ourselves, who we are and who we aspire to be. By acknowledging our flaws and our strengths, we can consciously choose how we live our life.
I’ve learned to forgive myself and have adopted practices that help prevent those missteps that cause guilt, regret, and shame. These practices are integrated into my life today because yes, I still mess up.
1. Practice conscious living.
Too often we hurt others due to our sheer ignorance or lack of empathy. We are not caring for others when our lives are so full and busy that we are unable to stop and notice how someone else is feeling.
When you are present to yourself and to those around you, you are conscious of your choices and actions. Your awareness of your environment increases. You will notice the person who is feeling sad or disappointed and offer them a kind word.
So many of our regrets, the things we wish we had done or said, are due to sleepwalking through our lives. Observing yourself, learning about yourself, and choosing your thoughts and actions means you are conscious and present to your life and to others.
2. Accept what you have done without denial or justification.
It’s easy to justify our actions or to blame others for our mistakes. Take responsibility for your decisions and you empower yourself to choose wisely.
This requires that you face your transgressions and tend to that wound so that you can begin to heal. Do this with an open heart and allow self-love to flow so forgiveness may transform the pain into peace.
3. Identify what it feels like when you are angry, resentful, or sad so that those feelings do not hijack you into doing harm to others.
These strong feelings can take us over, and we are left wondering how we could’ve behaved so badly. When you become self-aware, you notice when those feelings begin to arise so you can better manage your emotions. Of course you will feel these emotions at times. This is part of our human nature. Acting on them is what causes regret and shame.
4. Practice meditation and mindful breathing.
Through mindfulness, you begin to recognize the impermanence of things so you can make healthier choices. Nothing lasts forever, whether it’s joy or sadness. Sometimes we have to endure the discomfort of the moment by breathing through it until it passes. And it always passes.
5. Forgive imperfection.
Self-compassion means you accept that some days, you are doing the best you can do at the time. It’s not perfect but it’s good enough, and that’s fine. Perfection is a heroic standard that no one meets. It sabotages your confidence and self-esteem.
How different would our world be if we forgave each other? Begin by forgiving yourself and let the waves of that forgiveness ripple out so that one day, maybe, the compassion and forgiveness you offer yourself can create more peace and tranquility in a world desperate for its own transformation.