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Forgiving Yourself

Just left the dentist’s office – cleaning and checkup – and I was astounded to hear her say it had been 16 months since my last cleaning. I was absolutely certain I had been there right around last Halloween, so certain I convinced her to go back up front and check the computer. And I was wrong. Last visit was April 2018. Damn.

You always hear the expression “time flies” and smile knowingly when you hear it. “Boy, it sure does go by fast” you might even have thought to yourself. But it is not all that often where we are in a position for the reality of the saying to reach out and slap us in the face. And this was one of those moments. I would have bet cold hard cash that it had only been 10 months since I was last there. Since it had been that long, I had to go through the full dental X-rays (always torturous) throughout the entire process I spent my time (along with wincing and trying not to move) working through the math and my mental calendar in an attempt to understand how I could be off so far. I know for a fact that I was there near Halloween because she made a Halloween-related joke about the bleeding during the cleaning.(And yes I know your gums shouldn’t bleed during a cleaning – just got the whole lecture on it.)  But apparently that was Halloween 2017 – not 2018.  I don’t recall it (because it was likely an uneventful visit) but I was there in April 2018, hence the 16 months.

I remain somewhat incredulous to this moment, still trying to fathom how quickly the time has slipped past me. The improbability that I lost all that time is remarkable to me, yet I clearly did. Of course, there was such a huge amount of chaos and change in my professional life during that period that I guess I really should not be surprised. I has begun implementing my exit plan, starting with dividing up my “kingdom”, the people and areas for which I was responsible, into three separate groups. At the exact same time I was preparing to lose a truly great leader in my director, and of course, begin working for a new one. (One who turned out to be an amazing man himself.) And of course, strategizing and preparing for my retirement. So I guess I can forgive myself for losing track of my dental care timetable.

But that led me to think about self-forgiveness, something with which many people struggle. And that is not, to my knowledge, something that’s universal. Like so much else in life, look long enough and a huge bell curve will emerge with most people somewhere in the middle under the bell and the significant few who reside out on the edges of it. From my experience, there are two basic profiles: those who just can’t seem to forgive themselves for even the slightest transgression and those who can steal candy from a baby and rationalize the act to themselves and absolve themselves.

Self-absolution is really incredibly difficult for some; they replay it (the offending moment) in their minds over and over again, twisting themselves into a knot in the memory. Small and insignificant gravely details grow into massive boulders of guilt oppressing them and weighing them down. They roll every word spoken around in their minds, often substituting different words spoken to them in search of a potentially more negative connotation, making the whole moment even worse, justifying their angst. And it is always their fault; their shortsightedness, their ignorance, their insensitivity, their clumsiness, or whatever other fault one can self-attribute and identify with.

And it’s not that these are ordinarily negative people, quite the opposite often. They are typically (being careful not to overgeneralize) warm, caring, sensitive, empathic, generous, and gregarious people. And they typically loathe offending, upsetting, or letting down others. And once they do…..the weight of the world in guilt comes down upon them. At this point, especially if there is a valid reason to feel guilt or shame at something they’ve said or done, they will leadenly and lacklusterly attempt to dig themselves out from under this mountain of guilt – with a toothpick or some similarly ineffective and useless tool. A disingenuous attempt at best, because they really just cannot find the ability to forgive themselves.

To do so, you need to be able to cross some rather perilous internal personality flaws and faults. Maybe you did speak poorly about a friend and were overheard, maybe you did breach a promise of secrecy and got caught, or maybe you did allow your emotions to overrule your tongue and you spoke harshly or unkindly in anger. It happens. To everyone. Except to you, right? You would never break a promise or speak ill of a friend, would you, could you? And when humanity strikes and that does happen, there is no self-forgiveness.

You first need to admit your act; you need to accept and own your words or actions. This part is not all that difficult for the self-flagellators; they are more than willing to punish themselves for their own shortcomings. But you have to then admit that despite your best intentions, you’ve hurt or offended the other person. Again, for those that dwell this deeply on the shallow edges of the curve, not a terribly difficult task, but still painful and an oft times bitter pill. But now you have to admit that it is OK. You have to be embarrassed and come to terms with that; admit it, show it, and bow to it. You can’t begin to get past it if you can’t acknowledge this. Because we expect more of ourselves, don’t we? We are not of the ilk of the masses, we are sensitive and caring human beings and don’t inflict pain on others; we forgive the pain of society readily but never dispense it. Right?

As diverse and different as we all are, we are so alike it’s ridiculous. We all know that is if you look at a snowflake really up close and in great magnification that it is unique and none other match it. But back off to the real world and put ten thousand snowflakes together on the ground and try to even distinguish one from the other, never mind determine the differences. It’s impossible. Humans are excitingly unique at the micro level; but at the macro level – the real world level – there is little to discern one from the next. A smile is universal, as is a tear or a clenched fist. Black, white, or any of the hundred other skin tones you care to try to use to separate one from the next, we all smile at joy, weep at sorrow or pain, and we all bleed red. We love, we despair, we mourn, we celebrate, and we yearn. Everybody hurts as REM so melodically put it. We are the same, despite our differences.

And once you recognize this, it begins to level the playing field. You can start to accept your flaws and failures. Once you understand that the rock star or movie star or author you so respect and admire is really no different than you; once you see that the rival at work or school who always seems to be a step faster, a throw farther, a grade higher, or a shade cooler is subject to the same misfortunes and missteps as you, you can then begin to forgive yourself. It is OK to be human. It is OK to fail. Certainly never fun or enjoyable, but it is OK. It’s what we humans do. We stumble, all of us. And allowing ourselves that luxury to admit our humanity, our lack of perfection, is critical to forgiving ourselves. And that is critical to living a balanced and healthy life. Internalizing that pain and letting it churn and convulse inside us is unhealthy and will do nothing but interfere with enjoying life.

So if you spend a lot of your time living out under the sallow edge of the great bell curve, and can never allow yourself a mistake, a misstep, or a miscue – take a moment to try to see that while you’re inability to forgive yourself places you on the outer banks of normalcy with the rest of humanity, the fact that you had that moment places you squarely in the middle of the deep end of the pool with absolutely everyone else in the human race. Accept that it is as basic and fundamental a human trait as is smiling at a puppy or kitten; or as normal as reminiscing with an old song or photograph. Allow yourself to be human and don’t waste your life wallowing in self-scorn. Life is too short!

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