existentialist cafe

life is sacred

Tag: anxiety

Self-forgiveness

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.

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The Triad: Authenticity, Courage, and Humility

The process of spiritual growth, I have found, depends largely on the interplay between three virtues: authenticity, courage, and humility. I’ve given each one a patron saint, too!

Authenticity is truth-telling. It is being plainly honest with ourselves (and with others) about what we think and what we feel. If we persist in telling ourselves lies, then we will always be stuck with lies. It’s obvious when we think about some external matter – what is the sense in maintaining an illusion that your car is working fine when there is smoke pouring out of the engine? It may be unpleasant, but that does not mean that it is not true. I believe this is what Freud had in mind when he spoke of our efforts to push unpleasant feelings aside. This is an inauthentic way of living. Carl Rogers, my patron saint of authenticity, said that only when we have first accepted who we are can we change. A curious paradox. I think the practice of authenticity taps into those desires which expand and open up the self.

This takes courage. Many truths are hard to face, and we prefer the comfort of lies. Courage allows us to walk the difficulty path of authenticity, knowing that it is a good path. The difficulty is not removed, though. The source of our anxiety and fear remains with us, and we will have many opportunities to fall into despair. Courage is not a magic bullet that destroys the anxiety; it does, however, enable us to transcend it. The patron saint of courage is Paul Tillich. “Courage,” he said “is the self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of non-being.” In fact, Tillich sees courage as a vital part of faith.

Humility is a particular posture. The humble person is a servant of the truth, not the other way around. It is a posture of openness that comes from a recognition that we are limited, finite beings whose knowledge is always condition by our finitude. Humility is a peculiar virtue because the desire to attain it precludes true humility. This is a point that was made by Thomas Merton, the patron saint of humility, who had an uncanny knack of detecting the subtle ways that pride works its way into our lives. On the surface, we appear to be defined by selfish devotion, but in fact we are intent on hoarding spiritual riches (as if there was such a thing) for our selves. He uses a beautiful image of glass which becomes more invisible the more light it lets through. You’ll notice that this brings together humility and authenticity. The person who is both open to receiving understanding and committed to speaking authentically will become a conduit through which grace and mercy flow.

I saw Hem for the first time last night at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. They’ve played such an important part in my struggle against anxiety, that I wanted to let them know. So I send them this email.

Dear Hem,

Long time listener, first time writer. I never thought that I would be one to send a note to a band I like, but I needed to, so here goes.
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