Can You Forgive Yourself?

Today I saw a video posted on TED by Shaka Senghor entitled “Why your worst deeds don’t define you”. I frequently view videos on TED and have discovered valuable insights just by listening to presentations. The previous headline caught my attention immediately. I’ve often wondered how some people learn to find peace with their pasts and what it means to truly atone. Granted, my past “bad deeds” don’t involve murder or incarceration as Shaka’s does, but at the very least most of us carry guilt about actions we are not proud of. Please take a few moments and watch this video:

This video brought forth several thoughts. Shaka speaks of how time in prison spent in solitary confinement led him to finding himself. This became a time of examination and transformation for him. He was, for the first time, forced to look at his life honestly. He discovered literature by black authors who indirectly helped him to see past stereotypes not only placed by society, but also himself. After receiving a letter from a family member of his victim, he began to explore the concept of atonement – this person had found it within him/herself to forgive Shaka for murdering a member of his/her family. He began to write a journal and further understand how Plato’s quote “a life unexamined is not worth living” indeed applied to him.

That quote resonated with me as well. The entire concept of empathy, atonement, forgiveness and transformation sang out. Often one of the most burdensome aspects of depression is self-hatred. It lingers in everything you do. An overwhelming sense of worthlessness and a genuine belief of being a bad, undeserving person sets it. It sinks into your entire being, lacing itself throughout all of your organs resulting in one large knot in your chest. It’s a dense, heavy belief and nearly impossible to convince yourself otherwise. I always found reasons to believe I was bad, evil, soulless. I believed I was poison to any friends or family who still held interest in my life. Any sort of failings, no matter how small, I attributed to my uselessness. I would look in the mirror and ask myself what my contribution was to anything…anything at all and I could come up with nothing.

Even when the darkest periods of depression subside and unveil new instances of purpose, it’s easy to retreat back to thoughts of worthlessness during stressful moments. The negative self-talk emerges and echos throughout my mind convincing me that I’m awkward, lacking social skills, uninformed, slow, boring, cold, clumsy, forgetful, unreliable, untrustworthy, selfish etc. It’s during those moment that I want to retract back into my shell. Safe from others judgmental eyes. In reality, it is me being the harsh critic – the patronizing audience member who just won’t quit.

It requires a strong effort to convince yourself that others aren’t making nearly as many negative assumptions about you as you are.  It can also be a challenge to accept that others may find your “faults” attractive. For example, you may believe that you don’t show any interest in your coworkers lives, you don’t ask them questions, you don’t initiate conversation. You make an assumption that you’re nothing but a heartless human being because you don’t seem to be as sociable. “Aren’t humans supposed to be the most social beings on the planet? Why do I not seem to need conversation? I must be bad at being a human”. On the flip side, somebody in the office might find your lack of socializing to be mysterious and intriguing. Perhaps somebody believes you to be unique because you don’t seem interested in office politics and don’t get involved in mindless small talk. You don’t seem interested in trash talking others or bashing on the new person. Somebody might actually admire that about you. You never know.

I had this moment of revelation a few months ago about what it is to be a good, grown up, human being. I realized that I could no longer blame my upbringing, my parents, society or anybody else for my shortcomings. It suddenly hit me that everything I do shapes who I am. I have the power to make changes. But, I started to wonder if it was too late for some things. As I have many times before, I mentally relived some of my most painful mistakes and memories. In some twisted way, I’ve believed that reliving those moments was a form of atonement – a continuous, tortuous way for me to “pay” for my mistakes. I’d think of all the hurtful words I used and the way I shut people out. I put myself back in the shoes of that young person who didn’t “give a fuck”. I’d think of my apathy, my selfishness, and my addictions.  I’d remind myself just how much I didn’t care about anybody and then I’d say “You get what you put in. You’re getting what you deserve”.

But is that really atonement? Is keeping myself in a dark, isolated corner of self-belittlement going to help me become a better person? Can I grow if I’m swimming in a pool of poisonous assumptions rather than planting new roots in the ground? Can I truly heal if I’m feeding myself theories of ill will, sickness and hopelessness? Some people, though, want to see you pay. They want to watch you endure suffering and live a lifetime of pain. Some of these people wish this because you may have wronged them, but some people are going to wish this upon anybody. It’s up to you to determine when enough, is enough.

I decided that I could no longer keep reliving and punishing myself for the mistakes I’ve made. Believe me, aside from self-punishment, I’ve paid for many of these mistakes. However, life must go on. I’m still alive and I still have goals and desires for the future. If we all lived perfect lives, then we’d never acquire the knowledge, wisdom and appreciation for all of life’s moments, regardless of whether we deem them good or bad.

I realize that, unlike Shaka Senghor, I did not take someone’s life. I can’t match the years he spent in prison coming to terms with this; therefor, I find his story inspiring. However, it’s not a far fetched concept he’s discussing – hence why he shared in the first place. If you’re holding onto guilt about your past and you deeply believe that you must live your life carrying this weight, I’m gonna tell you right now, you’re wrong! Don’t let it define you, no matter what opposition you feel internally. You are an imperfect being and can not always act in an “ideal” fashion. Most of us like to believe that we are living life the “right” way – that our own way is what’s best, but we have experienced moments of regret, too. The negatives ought not always outweigh the positives!

Do you think one ought to spend a lifetime atoning for mistakes or wrong-doings in the past? Do you believe that people can change?



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