Self-forgiveness the hardest kind to give

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and re-thinking about guilt. I’m not sure if it’s the books I’ve been reading, the Easter messages I have been hearing, or the discussions I have been having that’s triggering it.

A co-worker shared how disgusted she was with herself that she’d been putting off something she should have taken care of months ago. The more she thought about how pathetic her procrastination made her, the more she seemed to buy into the patheticism, making her even more pathetic and helpless to do anything about her situation.

This is the same woman, mind you, who cuts the rest of us slack for our shortcomings and forgives our foibles. When I’m down, I can always count on her for encouragement and a renewed perspective pep-talk. But if she ever talked to me the way she talks to herself, I would stop looking to her for help re-charging my spirit.

Sometimes we seem to genuinely need to feel bad about ourselves. When I hit myself emotionally with the equivalent of a rolled up newspaper, I mistakenly believe I’m insuring that I won’t screw up again. Which, of course, I will. That newspaper metaphor is why it’s called “dogging yourself out.”

But I usually self-flagellate most rabidly when I’ve committed an offense I’m unlikely to duplicate. So there’s really no need for my stern self-talking-to and rubbing my nose in it. Actually, the heavy-duty self-recrimination would be better reserved for my more consistent goofs and the character flaws I never seem to entirely eradicate.

I’m not alone in my self-reproach. It’s pretty universal. Even Mother Theresa must have had an occasional finger-wagging self-talk. Did she accuse herself of selfishness or stupidity? Was Gandhi unconditionally accepting of his faults? When we ask “What would Jesus do?” it’s typically in reference to his dealings with other people, not necessarily himself. So it’s hard to know how often he felt the need to kick himself in the seat of the pants before confessing to his Father.

Growing up Catholic, I never much cared for confession. Well, I liked it as much as the next kid who’d been dragged somewhere against her will, threatened with grounding and shoved into a small booth for the purpose of having a soul-revealing chat with a religious authority figure wearing a flowing robe and funny hat.

Why? Because we’re all sinners, whatever that meant. Not exactly the “come to Jesus” moment my mother thought she’d orchestrated.

For confession purposes, I’d come up with some lame personal shortcoming involving an activity I had the audacity to guiltily enjoy. Like making up scary stories about creatures such as bedroom closet wolves and nocturnal floor spiders to frighten my older sister to the point she would (hopefully) be too scared to get up and use the bathroom during the night and thus lose sleep from her full bladder. Or better yet, wet the bed.

The priest would respond that while he didn’t think these kinds of behaviors were definite signs I was cruising straight down the road Hell, they nevertheless could be considered speedbumps along the route. And I might want to consider taking a slightly different path if I wanted to end up somewhere else.

What did I learn from this experience? If I were selling this kind of confession to my kids, I would bill it as an opportunity to unburden themselves, and who doesn’t need to occasionally take a load off? I would encourage them to share what’s weighing most heavily on their hearts and preventing them from feeling good about themselves and contributing more to the world. And I’d mention someone died to buy them second chances.

Perhaps this is the value of formal confessions and penance. They purge us of a debilitating sense of unworthiness and validate us when we feel less than human, enabling us to move forward again beyond self-perpetuated paralysis.

Fortunately, I now know there’s another, more direct route for these confessions. I can go straight to the top and speak to the priest’s supervisor. The REALLY big man, Himself. Any time I feel the need. No waiting in line. And if He can forgive me, maybe I should, too.


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