By Kathy Berken
Have you gone through life without ever causing anyone pain? Can you say that you are completely free of guilt? Have you never wanted to rewind the tape and start over?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, I am both impressed and concerned. Who doesn’t have something lurking in their past for which they want/need forgiveness? And who doesn’t have something they’ve done that is still nagging, something that feels almost unforgivable, regardless of the severity of the action?
My nephew Nick gave me permission to tell this story he recently posted on Facebook: “So I had a dad fail today. My [2-year-old] son insisted on us taking [our dog] Miller for a walk and going to Grandma and Bumpa’s house. So we went. What should I have done? I should have called first. That’s right, they weren’t home. We must have sat on their front stoop for 15 minutes while I consoled my sad crying son because his grandparents weren’t home.”
How could Nick forgive himself for what he perceived as causing pain to his little boy? I told him how bad I felt for him and Zach, and then said that this incident looked like an opportunity for some father-son bonding. Nobody gets through life without disappointments, and Nick could teach Zach an early lesson. I suggested Nick acknowledge Zach’s sadness and name his feelings. He’s teaching a valuable lesson about being human, especially in our society where men are still often told not to show or talk about their feelings. The experience allowed Nick to be a good role model, showing Zach that men can and should say how they feel, no matter how bad those feelings seem.
I told Nick that the day seemed more like a success than a failure. As a result, he was able to forgive himself and appreciate the lesson learned for both father and son. I know he will definitely call grandma and grandpa first before visiting next time.
Because Nick was not responsible for Zach’s hurt feelings, his guilt is unnecessary, even though he believed he could have prevented the pain. Events like this often haunt us, acting like a giant weight on our back. We keep repeating, “If only, if only, if only….” There is nothing to forgive because Nick never intended to cause Zach pain. Hanging on to this kind of guilt is not helpful and could lead to depression, anxiety or illness.
However, when we do intentionally hurt others, the guilt we feel is necessary because it exercises our conscience, tells us we are healthy humans and need to make amends. We want to reconcile, confess our sin and make an act of contrition, but so often we still can’t get rid of the feelings of regret. We hit a brick wall and can’t forgive ourselves. Hanging on to this kind of guilt can also lead to depression, anxiety or illness.
Is there anything we can do to forgive ourselves and let go of the guilt? Here are some ideas.
Know that God has already forgiven you and offer a prayer of surrender: “God, I need your help to let this go.”
Know that you are not alone. Everyone deals with guilt.
Repeat comforting verses: “The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
Memorize pieces of wisdom, such as this by Father Anthony de Mello: “The past is to be dropped not because it is bad but because it is dead.”
Give your time, talent and treasure to others. Reflect on how your life has changed for the better.
Perform a ritual such as writing your feelings on some big rocks with chalk. Carry them in a backpack on a walk to the river, reflect on each rock, and throw each one into the water with a prayer of thanksgiving. Walk home feeling the weight off your back.
May we all be blessed knowing that during this Easter season we walk the way of God’s love and forgiveness.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)