Self-forgiveness and self-discovery
A friend of mine cheated on his wife a couple of years ago. Without going into details, they had a period where they had to live quite far apart and while they were, my friend grew close to another woman and eventually they had sex.
I saw him the weekend after he had confessed what he had done to his wife. He was crushed, obviously. He was afraid of his wife leaving him and was weighed down by the realisation that if she did, it was all his fault. She needed time away from him to think things through and while he understood this and respected it, it tortured him. She didn’t leave him, I can report, and they reconciled, but for a while after his confession it looked ready to go either way.
I distinctly remember one moment during one of our long conversations that weekend, where he seemed to look down and observe his arms and his body, shaking his head saying, “How could I have done this, Arni? This is not who I am!” I immediately corrected him, “This is who you are. You are capable of cheating on your wife and you did cheat on your wife. That was you. And as long as you don’t reconcile yourself to that fact and make it a truth about yourself that you hold right in front of your nose, you’ll be in danger of cheating on your wife again.”
My friend Eric Reitan wrote an excellent blog about self-forgiveness yesterday. In it, he asks why, given how relatively easy it can be to forgive others, it is so hard to forgive yourself. It’s a genuinely insightful post and I agree with it all, especially his point about the necessity of abdication, the giving up of power, being what makes self-forgiveness so difficult.
But I’d like add one thought, if I may.
Eric distinguishes self-forgiveness from self-deception and that’s exactly right. The one thing we cannot do if we want to forgive ourselves is to deceive ourselves. And that’s exactly what, in my experience of myself and with my friends, makes self-forgiveness so hard. Because in order to forgive ourselves we must confront ourselves. We need to get acquainted with sides of our character we would like to remain ignorant of, forget and ignore. Self-forgiveness necessarily entails the disturbing realisation that we aren’t as good as we thought or hoped we were.
Most of the time, it’s easy enough to think of ourselves as good people. We cast ourselves in familiar roles and go about our way thinking, “I’m basically a good person. I’m a good friend, a good husband, a good employee, a good student, a good son. I can do this, if only I put a bit more effort in.” And we might be right to a significant degree. But we are also bad people, a fact we like to ignore. It doesn’t cross our minds that within us all lies the potential to truly hurt others, by our forgetfulness, excessive self-regard, callousness, pride, selfish ambition and so on.
But when we do hurt someone and end up with losing a dear friend or finding our wife hovering about the doorstep, uncertain of whether she is coming or going, that’s when we meet our real selves. Or, parts of our real selves that we didn’t know or didn’t want to know were there. It is here that self-deception, perhaps via misdirection, as Eric says, becomes so tempting. If only we can make ourselves forget that however good we might be, we are also most certainly bad, then we can retreat into that comfortable fog of thinking of ourselves as (entirely) good persons.
The self-discovery that necessarily proceeds self-forgiveness can be genuinely traumatising. It can be shocking. We didn’t know that we were people like that. And we have to adjust our image of ourselves in ways that we find uncomfortable. Our expectations, of ourselves and of others, have to change in light of such a self-discovery. We must confront the fact that the world isn’t divided up into neat categories of good and bad – with us firmly planted in the good category and them in the other – but that the line separating the two goes straight through our very soul. And we realise that it’s possible to fail. Maybe our friend will never want to talk to us again (and even if he does forgive us, his wife never will). Maybe our wife leaves and doesn’t look back. Maybe our wife will stay, but she’ll always think less of us. Maybe we’ll be kicked out of uni. Maybe we’ll be left with a criminal record for the rest of our lives. Maybe this ends all of our prospects in the community. Maybe we’ll never be able to speak again in church. And so on. So in addition to requiring self-discovery, self-forgiveness can lead to the discovery that the universe works by a different set of rules than we in our naiveté expected.
There’s a side of us that wants to do without this knowledge, of ourselves and of the world. And it’s that side’s strong pull on us that is part of the reason self-forgiveness is so hard.
But that’s precisely why self-forgiveness is such a good thing. With self-forgiveness comes truth. And that’s a gift much more precious than the false comforts of a rose-coloured view of ourselves, however uncomfortable it is to receive and to live with.