One of the most compelling questions for me in early recovery was that of self-forgiveness. I remember being obsessively absorbed by the problem it presented. I seemed unable to get the answer I needed or a solution that resolved the question in a meaningful way.
People would ask me things like, “If your Higher Power forgives you then shouldn’t you?” Nothing seemed to really fit and I was often stuck in a sort of weird combination of self-pity, loathing, hate, hopelessness and despair. It was all very odd and uncomfortable. It kept me in a place of feeling that I wasn’t good enough, or was perhaps ineligible for success in recovery. A part of me clung to the comfortably uncomfortable shroud of my past deeds and bemoaned my seemingly fated inability to find any sense of self-forgiveness.
Today, those feelings are largely gone because I better understand the prideful futility of seeking a self-forgiveness that doesn’t exist. I have learned that self-forgiveness simply isn’t a very useful concept for me because it centers my thinking on and within me—a circular situation that provides no contact with outside reality.
“I never got better by telling myself I was OK.”
My only relief has come from the forgiveness of others and a willingness to seek the same in return—most importantly, by accepting the forgiveness of my Higher Power.
As I reflect back I see that letting go of my naive pursuit of self-forgiveness (which I found to be just another form of self-absorption and denial) and instead learning to find true forgiveness for others was a critical part of creating and deepening my spiritual connection to a Higher Power. I learned to find peace and forgiveness through open honest relations with others and it was this process that opened the door to a true relationship with my Higher Power.
I discovered that forgiveness is something that can never really exist in the singular—and so my fascination and obsession with some panacea of self-forgiveness was really just another symptom of my self-centered egomania that makes the entire world about me alone. Self-forgiveness was an illusory means to an end, a false dichotomy that hid an inability to truly face and let go of unsustainable justifications for my shameful past behaviors. And so the deeper question become one of better understanding the underlying dynamics of how to overcome shame and guilt.
By nature and definition forgiveness is something that happens between people and so the idea of self-forgiveness is a complicated one that typically masks other feelings and motives that I am struggling to see clearly.
The famous philosopher Hannah Arendt discusses forgiveness and notes that “No one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self,” she adds, “It [forgiveness] is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but also acts anew… therefore freeing… both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”¹ I had to learn to forgive others in order to truly receive forgiveness.
My struggle with self-forgiveness—while somewhat centered in guilt and shame—was more fundamentally tied to denial, self-indulgent remorseful self-pity, and a lack of acceptance. Until I truly gave up on the notion of somehow creating a better past I wasn’t able to fully accept my own. Only by truly accepting my past was I able to transcend its grip on my present. My Higher Power is always ready to forgive and encourage me to move forward—to live with love and kindness for myself and others. That peace that I sought through self-forgiveness could never be found alone—only through gently and carefully sharing myself with others.
I’ve slowly learned that the lessons of my past arrive in the toolbox of today only when I am willing to not only see my mistakes but then accept them by letting them go. It is this truth that released me from my self-indulgent pity party and pursuit of the myth of self-forgiveness and then opened the door to a true reliance upon, and relationship with, a Higher Power.
* This blog contains some content previously published in the book “A Year of Days.”
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¹ Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. P. 237, 241.