When you ask a person about forgiveness and crime in the same sentence, the automatic assumption is that we are talking about a victim’s willingness (or lack thereof) to forgive a person who has caused them pain. This is logical and understandable. In general, the deeper the hurt that has been inflicted, the harder it will be for a victim to forgive the wrongdoer. However, after meeting so many people who are locked up in Texas prisons, all of whom are forced to suffer the many consequences of their past mistakes, it is so very clear to me that the wrongdoer cannot ever be at peace and move forward in life until he forgives himself.
He’ll never forget the things he did, and he shouldn’t forget them either. But, it’s a huge mistake for people to blindly assume that most people who have stumbled badly and hurt others are not deeply sorry for what they’ve done to hurt their victim, their parents, their children, their entire circle of loved ones, and even the community at large.
Forgiving oneself sounds so simple and seductively easy, but I would respectfully suggest that it’s as hard or harder for a person who has deeply harmed others to forgive himself as it is for a crime victim to forgive the perpetrator. Many would instinctively say that people who have done bad things have no conscience, no regrets, and no remorse. I realize it’s not very popular for most people to hear this, but that simply isn’t true in the vast majority of cases.
Forgiving oneself is not easy. It’s hard. Really hard. However, somehow, some way, each and every one of us has to reach a point in our life’s journey where we find the courage to forgive ourselves. The more wrong we’ve done, the more work we have to do before we can reach that point where we can finally forgive ourselves. For prisoners, it’s made even harder by the message that everyone seems to send. “You’re bad.” ‘You’re evil.” “You are selfish and arrogant.” Somewhere along the way, society seems to have forgotten to make the very important distinction between a past act and a present character trait. “You are bad” in almost every case ought to be “You did a bad thing”. “You are evil” needs to be re-phrased as “You did an evil thing”. It is so unfortunate that people look at prisoners in that way until the day that a prisoner is someone they love.
A couple of years ago, I picked up a book at my favorite bookstore, Half Price Books. It is called “Everything Happens For A Reason” by Mira Kirshenbaum. I pulled it off the shelf last night. As I read, I quickly remembered one of the reasons why I had bought the book in the first place. I was struggling with the idea that one could ever really forgive themselves for inflicting pain and heartache on others.
I have seen so many people cry when having to explain the details of the terrible mistakes they had made. Often, the tears were not just for the victim. Many times, they had to tell me how their children, spouses, or parents had also been adversely affected by the consequences of their mistakes. That’s not easy to face and accept responsibility for causing. I have also seen and heard a lot of people who grieve the lost hopes and dreams for themselves that came about as a result of their failures.
It seemed to me for a long time that the guilt and self-loathing most prisoners were feeling would have to stay with them forever. And yet, on some level, I knew this couldn’t possibly be a very good path to enabling these people to be a source of goodness, and such self hate wouldn’t yield the future ability to properly love those around them and live a full and satisfying life, a life that made a difference in the world.
As Ms. Kirschenbaum wrote,
“You’re letting that person you were define who you are now. But, maybe there’s a way to acknowledge what happened to you without letting it define you so much. You know, that is going to happen anyway. You’re still young. Ten, twenty years from now you’re going to look at the life you’ve built and you’re going to see how much of your life comes from you, not the sick you, but the you you. That’s what’s going to define who you are. So why not do it sooner rather than later? And then when your old self isn’t such a big deal in the story of your life, believe me, forgiveness will come.”
In addition to making the mental distinction between the “sick you” of the past and the person you really are inside, the one who hates what the former self did, Ms. Kirschenbaum offers another very keen insight about the path to forgiving oneself.
“Focus on how its hurt you not to forgive yourself and on what you need to feel safe” To me, the only thing I would change is the word “safe” to “at peace”. When one does as Ms. Kirschenbaum suggests, the logical conclusion, the only logical conclusion, is that a person is truly obligated to forgive himself in order to prevent wasting their own lives and continuing to be a source of pain and heartache for the people who still love him.
My work as a lawyer is to do what I can do to help people come home from prison and re-build their lives. I hope that all of my clients have forgiven themselves for their past mistakes. However, I fear some of these people may be tormented the rest of their lives by a feeling of shame and heartache for hurting so many people. To those people, I say this…
You are still alive, and therefore, God has a plan for you. A plan to make a difference in the world. So, you may as well forgive yourself, even if you do not feel deserving of that forgiveness at the moment. Because God wants you to love and be loved, and it’s pretty hard for that to ever occur if you do not love yourself enough to forgive yourself for making some terrible choices in the past.