It feels like a year ago that a friend asked me, “How do people forgive themselves?” We were talking about how our 30s are like a process of unknowing and unlearning all the toxic shit we’ve brought along for our whole lives.
Their question has stayed with with me. I didn’t have an answer then, and I don’t really have an answer now. I don’t know how we forgive ourselves. “it is an intrinsic human trait. and a deep responsibility. i think. to be an organ and a blade.” (Nayyirah Waheed)
Over these past months, I’ve been considering what it is to be forgiven by someone else. Being forgiven will break you open. In ways that you don’t have words for. Maybe this is what some Christians feel when they talk about Jesus and being saved and forgiveness. It feels like a lancing brightness, and a tremendous weight. It feels divine and mundane.
Forgiveness is tough and sweet, and it will rock you. It’s an enormous kindness, which makes it sound like a privilege. But I actually think that we all deserve it. We all need it.
We hold back a lot on forgiving ourselves, though. I don’t know if we just don’t know what we don’t know. Maybe we don’t have enough role models to learn from.
Maybe it feels surreal to forgive yourself. Perhaps we feel like forgiveness is reserved for the other, not the self. To give ourselves this gift feels…selfish? Indulgent? I don’t know.
There are a lot of things that I work on forgiving myself for – from the smallest infractions to the much bigger trespasses. I know that it’s getting easier as I get older – where some things are concerned, anyway. I don’t know why.
Is withholding forgiveness like holding your breath? Does the body and the spirit just tap out after awhile, and say, “No more?” Is forgiveness an act of relaxation? A way to let go and admit that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, hasn’t worked, and because we are still here, we are entitled to some reprieve? We can take a moment and loosen the restrictions we place on ourselves?
There is a connection between kindness and forgiveness for me. I think forgiveness comes in those sometimes tiny moments of kindness to ourselves when we can say, “It’s OK that this happened,” or “It’s not OK that this happened.” I think it happens when we give ourselves permission: to fail, to hurt, to try, to wonder, to love, to be unresolved.
Sometimes you’ve been through so much shit that kindness and forgiveness feels like the only thing left. And until then, you don’t know how to reach for it. After that, maybe it becomes easier to draw it to you, to recognize it as something you’re worthy of.
I know some people go whole lifetimes without ever feeling the necessary fracture of forgiveness. All of us have some degree of the unsettled inside of us. I don’t know how we forgive ourselves.
But we must.
*from the poem “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye