River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, May 7, 2000
Rev. Scott W. Alexander
My topic this morning is Self-Forgiveness. I will admit to you that when I first saw that phrase as part headline on the lead article on the Washington Post's Style Plus page on March 14th my reaction was immediately negative and suspicious. "Great," I thought, "here's another self-absorbed baby-boomer" - the author's name is Mariah Burton Nelson, a free lance writer living right here in Arlington and I am almost certain she is a boomer like myself - "writing from her comfortable life about how to pay even more attention to (and heap even more indulgences on) an already over-indulged self." But after I carefully read her piece, and thought (over a couple of months, actually) about what she was saying, I realized that she was probably onto something of real, everyday, spiritual significance and value for us all...which (of course) explains this morning's sermon devoted to the subject.
Let me see if I can quickly (and coherently) summarize what Ms. Nelson is saying about self-forgiveness, mostly using her own words (her forthcoming book, incidentally is entitled The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom. In the article, after describing a number of situations from her life where she profoundly disappointed herself (by failing to live up to her own high moral and relational expectations) she writes,
Along the way [of my life] I noticed how harshly self-critical I am on a daily basis...Luckily I can [now] tell when I'm making myself miserable with self-criticism, even over minor faults and failings, and I know how to make myself feel better...I've learned that when I'm suffering [from the misery of self-judgement I regularly impose on myself] self-forgiveness is often the answer. Learning from mistakes is essential too, but mostly what we need, I believe, is less self-punishment and more self-love...Self-forgiveness [she goes on] is a commitment to love yourself no matter what. It's the generous act of giving yourself a break. Remembering that you [too] are human. Offering yourself the loving kindness that you might offer, on your best days, to those you love the most, no matter what they've done. The song says, 'let there be peace on earth...and let it begin with me.' Self-forgiveness is about 'beginning with me.' When we 'begin with me,' treating ourselves with love and compassion, we become nicer to everyone else...Once Lianna [the four year old daughter of family friends said to me when I was having a particularly bad day] 'I will love you forever.' ...What if we could say that to ourselves, 'I will love you forever.'? What if we not only promised that but made good on the promise? Forever, no matter what...[to love ourselves...forever].
And then Ms. Nelson shared something about her own life and struggle with self forgiveness that moved me deeply, she wrote,
I learned about self-forgiveness over the past few years, during an agonizing and ultimately liberating process of forgiving the man who molested me when I was young. During that experience, I had to [also] forgive myself for having been naïve, for having lied to my parents, for not having somehow stopped the abuse. (Sometimes self-forgiveness [she concluded] is required even when you really did nothing wrong.)
Well, while the article goes on further as some length, I have just given you the essence of the author's point...most of us (she asserts) are regularly pretty tough on ourselves, and (if we are to achieve true spiritual and emotional health with ourselves and others) we've got to start regularly and routinely practicing more self-forgiveness (and less self-flagellation and recrimination).
If you're like me, the first time you hear it this message of "I'm pretty tough on myself...so I gotta start loving myself more unconditionally" it sounds (somehow) wrong and self-indulgent...doesn't it? Doesn't this message strike us as somehow reflective of the rampant narcissism and pernicious self-absorption that can be seen everywhere in our selfish and prosperous culture? Still, the more I thought about it (and I had to really think about long and hard because from the get-go I found myself resisting her perspective), the more I realized that, in fact, self-forgiveness (and self love) is perhaps a necessary antecedent to ever finding the religious virtues of genuine love and forgiveness for others.
Reason with me. If we as individuals cannot (when we inevitably fail and fall shy of our expectations for ourselves) somehow come to accept, forgive and cherish our own human flawedness then how can we (when others fail and fall shy of their best selves and in the process hurt or harm us) how can we ever move to accept, forgive and cherish them in their flawedness? Is this perhaps the basic psychological and spiritual truth Jesus understood when he said, "Love your neighbor AS you love yourself?" I can be persuaded by the assertion that if we cannot find forgiveness and love for the expression of humanness we know and experience best (namely ourselves, in whose skin we daily live and move and have our being) then how in God's name will we ever find forgiveness and love for the humanness of others out there (which is always more difficult to relate to than the intimate, internal self)? It seems counter-intuitive (almost illogical at first), but upon reflection the logic of it becomes overwhelming: valuing yourself (and cutting yourself some slack when you screw up and hurt someone or something else) is the emotional and spiritual precursor to valuing others (and cutting them some slack when they screw up and hurt you or someone else). The Dalai Lama, in describing a simple five part meditative practice for increasing loving and compassion in our world, lists this as the second step (it reminds me of what Jesus said about loving your neighbor AS you love yourself, listen): "Spend five minutes cherishing YOURSELF on every in breath, and cherishing others on every out breath. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway." I think the Dalai Lama has the spiritual order right...if we fail to cherish ourselves on the "in breath," we will never succeed in truly cherishing the rest of humanity (especially those near us) on the "out breath."
And what's really crucial to remember here (I think) is that appropriately practicing self forgiveness (and learning to appropriately cherish one's own flawed self) does not mean we cease (as human individuals) to chide, challenge or correct ourselves with genuine self-criticism. Cutting yourself some slack when you make a mess (say in your relationship with a loved one, which is where in my experience we almost universally make our biggest messes and stand most often in the need of real forgiveness) does not give you permission to sit back and fail to do the on-going life work of self-examination, self-criticism, self-correction and improvement. It seems to me that always accompanying self-forgiveness (and I suspect this probably comes quite naturally to most of us) must be an equally strong spiritual and emotional commitment to learn from our mistakes and do better humanly in the future (as the author of this article herself puts it, "Learning from [our personal] mistakes is essential too.")
Let me give an example from everyday life that I personally know absolutely nothing about. This is from my own life living in partnership with another human being. When as a spouse (you know, as someone who is committed to another in a special way) you act in an untrustworthy or disrespectful or unsupportive or selfish or just downright mean way, it is not enough for you to think or say to yourself, "Well, you know how it is, I'm a flawed human being, people screw up, to expect more is unrealistic...I've cut myself some slack, and practice some self-forgiveness so I don't have to feel bad about what I did!" When I fail Collins (that is fall short in any number of ways of reasonable spousal expectations for support, respect, and kindness, which I'm not proud to report I most certainly do now and again -- as I suspect most of the rest of you in relationships do as well) in addition to finding some self-forgiveness (some measure of not expecting absolute perfection from yourself), we also need to find (and focus some energy and time) to WORK ON reducing or not repeating hurtful, selfish behavior (thereby - with any luck -- slowly evolving ourselves into better persons and spouses). The best spousal relationships - certainly - are not those in which both partners never fail one another's reasonable expectations (we are all much too flawed for that). The best intimate partnerships are those in which both partners find that delicate balance of self-and other forgiveness (cutting oneself and one's spouse a bit of slack for the inevitable foibles of both parties) and active self-correction (working in a sincere and disciplined way to eliminate or soften our offending and hurtful behavior).
Let me say all this somewhat differently. It occurs to me that if you are aware (within yourself) that you need to practice self-forgiveness (for some personal failing or foible you have exhibited, or characteristically exhibit), you already have within you the powerful and precious moral compass that will help you to challenge yourself to become a better, more responsible human being in this regard. I suspect the only people who generally don't feel bad (when they fail to live up to their best selves and thereby hurt others) are people afflicted with some level of sociopathology or clinical narcissism. As I understand it, sociopaths and narcissists (at least in some part of their personalities) feel little corrective guilt or helpful dissonance when they fail themselves and others because their overwhelming absorption with self blinds them to any external judgement or correction (which we all surely need from time to time). So I don't think there is much need to fear that normal people (most of us who screw up in life and then feel bad about it) will ever practice too much self forgiveness. My experience with people parallels that of Mariah Nelson, the woman who wrote the Post piece: few of us forgive ourselves too easily, we are pretty tough on ourselves, and do need to learn how to spiritually ease up on ourselves on a more regular basis (again, without ever losing our natural desire to self-correct and improve humanly).
Let's bring all this home, shall we. Let's talk about ourselves as Unitarian Universalists. For a religious group that got its start by rejecting Puritanism (as most of you know, both Unitarianism and Universalism arose as religious movements early in the 1800 in oppositional resistance to the fiercely puritanical streak in the early 18th
Century American church) it would nonetheless be my observation that we tend to be pretty harsh and demanding on ourselves! Put more bluntly, we non-Puritans can be awfully Puritanical when it comes to ourselves! Although some religious conservatives accuse us religious liberals of being responsible for what they see as America's cultural drift toward selfishness and lackadaisical moral standards, I see most Unitarian Universalists as extremely self-critical people - folks who are constantly chiding and challenging themselves to be better, and live to a higher, more responsible standard of human conduct. In my interactions with members of this congregation, seldom have I encountered an individual or a situation where I wished the people involved would feel more
shame, more self-recrimination. Almost always (when as your minister I am sitting with someone who is struggling with the consequences of having screwed up) almost always I wish the person could more readily and eagerly and naturally practice more self-forgiveness and self-cherishing (I have great faith you'll also do the necessary work of self-discernment and self-correction, you closeted, tough-on-yourself Puritans you!)
Tell me how it is with you? Boomer or not...do you honestly think you let yourself too easily off the hook when you fail to live up to your best self? Do you honestly think you have too little guilt when you make a mess of things? Do you honestly think you routinely need more shame, more worry, more recrimination and guilt to become a better person? No...knowing the people of this congregation I would say that, if anything, most of you need to actively work on spiritually and emotionally developing your abilities of self-forgiveness and self-cherishing. Again...learning in your heart the virtue of both forgiving and cherishing yourself (with all your persistent foibles) is surely related to your spiritual ability to practice the virtue of also forgiving and cherishing others (who, built just like you, will similarly screw up). By what spiritual or psychological logic would you withhold from yourself the forgiveness and love you believe it is virtuous to generously extend to others? For my purposes today at least, the McDonald's Corporation has it right, "Give Yourself a Break today!"
So I hope that I have persuaded you this morning that the habit of self-forgiveness is a liberating and empowering virtue...but then (assuming I have persuaded you of this) the big question becomes HOW? By what psychological or spiritual mechanism or mechanisms do we learn how to shift from 1) habitual self-flagellation and guilt to 2) habitual self-forgiveness and validation? On the day I was writing this sermon, I will confess that I found myself kind of stuck on this question (of precisely how -- once we've decided to stop punishing ourselves for all the many ways in which we are not perfect - we begin practicing the art of cutting ourselves some appropriate slack), so I grabbed the ever-wise Jacqui Gallagher (who was working the volunteer reception desk) and Dolores Miller (our ever-perky-and-equally-wise Associate Director of Religious Education who was also here that day) and asked for their thoughts. Jacqui and Dolores (who both immediately took to my subject, and identified themselves as old pros at excessive self-flagellation and deprecation) both (in essence) said the same thing: we learn the habit of self-forgiveness by PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE! And they also observed that it sometimes can take us a very long time -- even decades - to truly integrate a new habit of self-validation into our personalities. They both suggested (rightly I think) that like the breaking of any pernicious habit (smoking, eating compulsively, ignoring our spouses when they are talking to us), this one requires discipline, and repeatedly CATCHING YOURSELF when you are about to slip into the old, destructive behavior pattern, and replacing it with a more positive one. Dolores shared that when she now catches herself internally berating and denigrating herself (usually over some little foible or fault she would never criticize in others), she replaces that negative message with a positive one, repeating to herself a mantra of self affirmation and worth...you know something like, "I am in divine order," (another one which we say to our kids, "I am lovable and capable.") She finds that repeating such validating thoughts (or just simply repeating "I forgive myself") actually helps her to move back into a more loving, realistic and empowering relationship with herself. Jacqui said that she is learning to say to herself, "O.K., I screwed up this time, but that doesn't mean I am condemned to repeat this failing...I should move on. Because if all I do (because of that persistent internal Puritan of mine) is fixate on beating up on myself, all I ultimately succeed in doing is stealing PRECIOUS TIME AND PSYCHIC SPACE from myself...time and psychic space which I have been given to enjoy and celebrate my life, and reach out to people and things I care about. My life was not given to me to waste on self-recrimination, I should be spending my time and energies of responding and relating positively and lovingly to my world."
I like Jacqui's and Dolores' answers. Self-flagellation is such a waste of life's limited resources. So when we catch ourselves running those old, self-recriminating, unforgiving tapes we should find the way to REPLACE THEM with more positive internal messages (about our fundamental dignity and worth - as our UU principles affirm - and about all the constructive and engaging opportunities our life continues to unfold before us). Surely there is only one person who can grant you such liberating and empowering self forgiveness...and that person (of course) is yourself!
Today, for our annual flower communion, you each brought a tender flower, a flower symbolic of your particular humanness, in all its uniqueness, vulnerability and beauty. Later in the ceremony, you each took a flower, symbolic of the gift of humanness someone else brought to represent themselves (in all their similar uniqueness, vulnerability and beauty). My message to you today is as simple and straightforward as it is heart-felt. While we all must (of moral and relational necessity) work on ourselves (with a certain tough-mindedness and tough-heartedness) over a life time to reduce our failings and soften our foibles, we should first and foremost spiritually lead with generous, energizing amounts of self-forgiveness and self-cherishing. Fundamentally accepting and affirming ourselves as we come in all our often-irritating and persistent imperfectability gives us the spiritual and emotional energy needed to engage others (and the wider world) with health, decency and purpose. So don't go to McDonald's, but do "give yourself a break today"...and then go out to the world generously sharing that forgiveness and validation to all whom you meet. How else, I ask, can our world ever truly become a kinder, gentler place?