“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you"
- Lewis B Smedes
What do you carry around in your own head?
We blame in hyperbole; “I blame YOU” is the call to arms, rather than “I blame your lack of foresight in –” or “I blame the action you took when –”. We blame people in their entirety and in doing so we spread the perceived fault and our emotional response from that one instance in their life right out to their entire being – we say that they are, and by implication always have been and always will be – a Bad Person.
Because of this, one action, a bit of bad luck or a series of mistakes can ruin our image of another person for life. Blaming reduces people to that which they were when things started to go wrong, and the longer we blame the longer we continue to entrap others in their past.
Our justice system has slowly shifted from one of incarceration to rehabilitation. A guilty plea or good behaviour bond may take years off a criminal’s sentence, but the ethics guiding these systems have not yet filtered through to the wider public consciousness.
We are a faithful race. We are a forgiving race. Why else would we wait two full decades for Collingwood to once again rise up and claim a premiership? We believe in improvement – indeed we are obsessed with it. DIY renovation programs, weight loss reality TV, The Voice, Shane Warne’s glowingly white teeth. There is nothing we can’t, and won’t improve. Why is it then that we do not allow the conscience to blossom and grow? That we mistrust repentance? That we demand punishment and proof?
We live in an era of the quick fix. The one-hour challenge, the speedy plastic surgery, the wonder drug. Forgiveness doesn’t fit into a half-hour live special with ad breaks. Forgiveness takes time, courage and patience, and you won’t get a front-page tabloid interview if you undertake it.
When we blame ourselves we fragment ourselves and are filled with negativity. We fail to realise our potential, and often get so caught up in self-blame that we do not progress as we otherwise could.
Self-blame is indulgent because it allows us to think that we have the potential to improve, without requiring us to actually do any improving.
As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves we feel that no one else has the right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.’
At a leadership conference a few years ago we were invited to take in turns telling a little bit about ourselves, our lives, and how we came to be here. What could have been a great opportunity quickly turned into a psycho-biographical victim-fest, as each of my seven group members revealed increasingly personal information about difficult family circumstance or other personal hardship.
At my turn I felt compelled to follow suit, and it struck me afterwards that not only did I now feel sufficiently awkward as to not want to spend time with these people again, but not one of us had mentioned a positive outcome following their told situation. We were eager to display the people and situations in our lives that we blamed, but we were stuck there, defining our present selves by past events.
What should you forgive others for?
What should you forgive yourself for?