The story behind this post is: I posted a comment to someone else’s blog asking her what happens when we can not find in ourselves the capacity to forgive ourselves. Instead of just answering the question, she took the time to write a blog post wrestling with the question. She offers a lot of fine insight, and I recommend reading it. It stirred thoughts in me as well, which I wanted to also share.
She says that grace is a process. I could not agree more. Grace is a process. It is a process that, I think, begins with the hard road of authenticity and honesty. I say that it is a hard road because authenticity is often given as a encomium to the self – “Just be who you are!” “Don’t let anyone make you different!” Although we do need to learn to celebrate our selves in our mere being, rather than for anything we have earned or accomplished, the state of perceiving our moral failure undercuts our ability to do this.
Authenticity also includes experiencing what I would call lack (also known as privation, sin, disease, sickness), which is honesty about my limitations, destructiveness, and consequences of choices that I have made. In the moral realm, I especially lack the will to restrain from behaviors that are bad, and activate behaviors that are good. I also lack understanding: of what is bad, of what is good, and of what will lead to a better, more flourishing life for me and others.
For me, the key to beginning forgiveness is a willingness to allow all of those uncomfortable and painful feelings that accompany awareness of my moral lack to be really and totally present – a willingness to be aware of the real consequences of what I do, of my feelings of inadequacy, failure, etc. This is what I think Carl Rogers meant by radical self-acceptance, and his big little idea that we do not change until we accept who we are. Feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, self-loathing… we should not once again feel as though we must hide those things from ourselves and others, but allow them to be brought out into the light.
Those feelings are expressions of sorrow. And we know that grief can not be chased away or reasoned away, but only swallowed up in the work of compassion. A hard road, as anyone who has lost someone precious can tell you. We must be allowed to grieve our own destructiveness and failure, which does, unfortunately, mean experiencing it in a totality that we do not usually do.
She brings up another good point – we are better at forgiving others than we are at forgiving ourselves. To turn it around a bit – I can learn to forgive myself by experiencing the love and acceptance of others.
This is, ultimately, the reason that the Christian church has practiced confession of sin, both to spiritual leaders and “to one another.” Unfortunately, in practice this is often a matter of compounding guilt rather than acknowledging and honoring guilt, and meeting it with compassion and grace. So this is why the author referenced “spirit” – that which looks at us with a loving gaze. By not allowing people the opportunity to name their sin for what it is, or washing it away into some denial that there is that in us which is destructive, we will only compound its damage.
Of all the place I’ve been, the place where I have most seen a willingness to entertain this radical self-acceptance as well as to extend the hand of compassion and fellowship is in addiction recovery. Because then you have to face yourself, and all the consequences of your choices.
If all else fails, get a dog. They just look at you and accept you!
P.S. Ultimately, there’s no “answer” that can be neatly packaged. It is a journey that is hard. It takes courage. And not a little bit of wrestling and confusion.