There are a few, specific deeds I regret. In middle school I bowed to mean-girl peer pressure a few times. Once, in the midst of a fight with my friend Alexis, I overheard some popular girls making up a song about her. Their lyrics were so lame. Before I thought better of it, I threw out a perfectly rhyming verse with insults that would hurt my estranged friend. Who knows better than our friends what hurts us? Another time, I threw two birthday parties because I knew my more popular friends wouldn't attend a sleepover with my less popular friends. That must have hurt them, and I'm sorry.
I was irresponsible on other occasions: I opened the lambing barn to show a fried a baby lamb and didn't close the door properly. The lamb got out and died, and that loss of innocent life was my fault. In high school, I stayed up too late studying. Sleep deprived and fuzzy-headed, I tried to pass in a no passing zone at dawn. I was sure it was a passing zone, but I was wrong. Coming at me was a car with no headlights on. I managed to avoid a collision my jerking the wheel to return to my lane, but the truck flipped, totaling Dad's Ranger.
Yes, I need to forgive myself for those mistakes, but more importantly I need to forgive myself for mistakes in general. Logically, I know that no one is perfect, but I obsess over every mistake I make, and for every dream that hasn't come true, ruing the gap between who I am and who I was supposed to be.
I'm not happily married with kids and an impressive, established career.
BFF Val reminds me of the things I've accomplished: A MFA in Poetry, an MS in Teaching, a BA in English. Two years as a reporter. A three-year term in the Americorps/Teaching Fellows teaching in the South Bronx. An adjunct job at a state university. Being a good friend.
BFF Madrid reminds me that I might not have been any happier if all of my exterior measures of success had been reached. If I'd gone after my dreams of acting, my relationships might be more difficult to maintain, and everyone who has been my student would be a little pit different from learning from another teacher instead (for better or worse). If I'd fallen in love and gotten married years ago, I might have missed many of the academic, service and artistic opportunities I've been blessed to pursue.
So I graduated late. So what? It's time to forgive myself. So I'm 30 and my career as a poet and professor is still in its nascency. So what? I need to forgive myself. Each aborted career helped make me who I am today, and I like who I am.
As a child in the talented and gifted program, I thought I was going to be some kind of prodigy. I thought that was what people wanted from me, and I desperately wanted to please all those grownups with their high expectations. I prayed that I would manage to create something that would show everything that their faith in my was justified, and that the mean kids I went to school with were wrong: I was special in a good way. Being smart didn't just make me a geek: it meant I was destined for good things, and the world would reward me.
I love that the movie Hope Floats because emphasizes the idea that not being special is okay. Birdee, a former beauty queen, takes an ordinary job at the photomat in her ordinary hometown. Yes, her family is quirky and she develops an artistic hobby, but her life isn't glamorous. Justin, formerly a hot-shot architect in a powerful firm, gave it up because the pressure made him hate work he used to love.
The external recognition wasn't enough for him. It never will be--not for someone like me. I seek external validation, hoping it will make me happy, but the result is fleeting, like a drug. My best chance for lasting happiness is to find validation within.
I know how cheesy that sounds: like a self-help book run amok. I'm not talking about the kind of self validation that leads people to feel justified in every selfish choice. What I'm suggesting, instead, is a stab at self-acceptance. The serenity prayer isn't just for people in a 12-step program; it makes good sense for all of us. Here is Reinhold Niebur's original version: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."
So here goes: I forgive myself for my mistakes and for not living up to my dreams and the expectations of others. Some things I cannot change: I will probably always battle depression and the roadblocks that come with it, but I can work the steps to ameliorate its effects. I may never fall in love with someone who will marry and have kids with me. I can't control that, but I can do my best to get our and meet new people. I will change the things I must and work to accept the things I cannot change.
For my mistakes, I'm very sorry, and in this moment I forgive myself. I'll have to work hard to forgive myself over and over; I know this about myself. I will forget who I am and get lost in who I'm supposed to be. Then I will remember again, examine the lacuna between "am" and "should be" and step back from the ledge. I will remember again that I need forgiveness--that we all do. Why is it so much easier to forgive someone else than myself? Because it is hard to believe that I deserve such clemency.
The thing is, we don't always forgive because the wrongdoer deserves it. Sometimes we forgive because we need to let go of the grudge. Grudges are burdens that weigh us down, standing in the way of our paths forward. The only way to lay that burden down is forgiveness, but that the place to start is also the hardest place for most of us: we must start with ourselves.