I came across this the other day on Tumblr, and it says something that needs saying:
Or, as a friend said recently, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were keeping score. I was busy living.”
Which reminds me of something I came up with many, many years ago to help put things in perspective and deal with guilt and regret.
Some time ago, I was talking with my “daughter” Michaela via Skype or FaceTime. I put “daughter” in quotes because she adopted me a couple of years ago, at a Lutheran summer camp not far from Chicago, simply claiming me. “You will be my daddy and I will be your daughter,” she said. And so, I’ve been a long-distance daddy and mentor to her. She’s Slovak, and had to finish up high school, and then she started university in the Czech Republic. For the last few months, she’s been doing a semester in Jena, Germany. It’s been tough, but she’s enjoyed the rigor of the German university (while also being terrified, kind of like a roller coaster ride) and really enjoying, university life — socializing, late night conversations on the meaning of life and God, and all that.
Michaela is a lot like Jennifer — she’s smart, sensitive, serious, and guileless. (Actually, she’s a lot like me too.) She works hard. Being a sweet, honest, and deeply sincere person, she’s also prone to feeling guilt and remorse about things. (It does not help she is Catholic.) And we were talking about guilt and remorse, about life choices, about mistakes and how to correct them. Or live with them. Or avoid them. Because she doesn’t want to make mistakes, or hurt people, or do anything wrong.
And so, I told her this. Miška, I said, long ago I developed this little guide to think about what you had done, or been part of, or happened to you.
If you can walk away from something, and 1) no one is dead, 2) no one is seriously or permanently injured 3) no one is in prison or 4) no one is pregnant, then you can walk away, maybe not confidently, and maybe not proudly, but you can at least say to yourself, “I didn’t really do anything wrong.”
This is an incredibly low bar, I know. And I’m certain this “list” will make some folks very unhappy. Especially those who don’t make mistakes, or don’t think people should. I cannot help that.
In coming to this realization, I don’t mean you don’t need to repent, or do some penance, or ask forgiveness. This doesn’t mean you don’t think about what you’ve done, and consider how you live. It doesn’t mean you didn’t hurt anyone. Or don’t have some work to do to make things right.
But it does mean, in terms of carrying around guilt, shame, and regret, that you really have nothing to feel terribly guilty for. Or be ashamed of. (Embarrassed by, yes. But not ashamed.) Or even regret.
I could see, in her nearly bottomless brown eyes, the gears turning in her head. She’d never heard anything like this before.
And then she looked down. Her voice got soft.
“But what if,” she asked softly, “someone is permanently hurt? What if one of those things happens?”
Well, I said, then you deal with it. Because this is life. There are always consequences, and sometimes they are costly and forever. There is liability, responsibility, and accountability. You deal with it. And you live. Unfortunately, part of being human are the awful things — and frequently permanent things — we do to ourselves and to each other. Sometimes, we cannot avoid hurting other people. Or being hurt.
We’re human. We love. We fuck. We eat. We sleep. We fight. We hurt. We kill each other. This is an unhappy — but very human — reality.
She didn’t like that answer. I don’t ever want to hurt anyone, she told me emphatically. Certainly not on purpose. And I admire her for that. But I told her: you will. You won’t mean to, and you won’t want to, but you will. I did not want to hurt the young woman I named Lauren in my book. But I did. Because I had to. Sometimes it cannot be helped.
This is a hard-won perspective for me. I don’t feel guilty about much, but I carried a lot of guilt in regards to Lauren. I was so afraid that when we parted, I’d hurt her permanently, maybe even ruined her life. I was relieved last year to discover that no, I had not, in fact, done that. She’d gotten married and had two kids (in some order). I’m grateful. And relieved.
I’m not a great fan of guilt. Or how we tend to do repentance. Or forgiveness. It’s Jimmy Swaggert crying in the pulpit, begging for forgiveness. It’s theatre. It’s spectacle.
We don’t have a lot of individual confessions of sin in scripture. We have Israel confessing — Judges 10 and Ezra 9 come to mind, though I know there are others, especially in Psalms — but the story itself does not have a lot of individual confessions. We have David confessing to Nathan after the prophet calls him out over Bathsheba and Uriah
“I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13 ESV)
We do have a lot of repentance in scripture. David dons sackcloth and ashes. As does Ninevah when they hear, and understand, Jonah’s short warning. Saul of Tarsus turns his life around, surrendering utterly to Jesus. Changed lives, all of them.
That changing of lives is what matters. Because what we don’t have are sobbing confessions of guilt. There may be a place for that. (There’s nothing to say Saul didn’t weep bitterly and beg for forgiveness when he met Ananaias, in Damascus, but scripture doesn’t say, which suggests that’s not an essential part of anyone’s conversion or repentance.) But I think that kind of thing is designed to help those of us who have sinned — or not done that particular sin — feel better. Superior. And thus, we can make a show (but only a show) of magnanimity. It’s not real repentance, and in return, we don’t extend real forgiveness.
I have changed my life since I was a desperate young man seeking affirmation and love. Jesus has changed my life. Love has changed my life. And, in sharing my “wisdom” with Michaela — and the other young people I have shared it with — I hope they understand that they need not cripple themselves with guilt. They can also lead changed and redeemed lives. It isn’t so much, “don’t make my choices” as “I want to help you be or become the kind of person who does’t feel you have to make the kinds of choices I made for the reasons I made them. That you can act knowing you are loved and cared for, rather than out of fear and desperation, and an ache to be loved, not knowing if love will ever be there.”
After all, I told Michaela, you will make plenty of your own mistakes. Something she didn’t like hearing either.
This is why Grace and Love mean so much to me. It would be nice if we all followed the rules, behaved ourselves, never hurt anyone ever. But we don’t live in that world. And we never will. So, we have to live with each other. We have to live with ourselves. We have to live with what we’ve done, and what has been done to us. This is why repentance, forgiveness, penance, and redemption are so important to me. Far more important than the rules. Because this is how we are called to live with each other as people of a God who came into our midst, breathed our air, lived our lives, and died our death at our hands. To forgive. To love, and to welcome, again and again, those who are wounded and those we wound.