Today I want to talk to you about forgiving yourself. And right off the bat I want to qualify what I mean by “forgiving yourself.”
I am not talking about giving up responsibility. You can’t say, you know what, I forgot to feed the baby today. Ahhh, I’ll feed her tomorrow — I forgive myself No, you have a responsibility.
I am not talking about being a jerk. “It’s just the way I am!” “I’m cranky!” “I tell it like it is — but I forgive myself!” That’s can’t be a good idea.
I am going to be talking about feeling remorse but not going too far with self-condemnation.
Remorse is a positive, pro-social feeling that makes you want to make amends; self-condemnation is paralyzing and can lead to depression and anxiety. Another way to say this is: You CAN be annoyed with yourself but you should not hate yourself.
So those are my few words before I begin to speak. Now I’m ready to start.
Gut Yontif! For many of us, seeing ourselves as flawed makes us feels vulnerable and that can be scary. We’re basically wired to survive.
In order to forgive ourselves, we first have to admit to ourselves that we blew it. We have to take ownership and acknowledge the flaw or mistake—and that almost feels counter to our sense of survival!
It’s helpful to remember that mistakes, failures and even incredibly stupid acts are part of being human. It’s how we learn and grow. If you’re never embarrassed or wrong and if you never make a mistake, you’re probably staying within a pretty narrow comfort zone.
I’ll tell you a story. Burt Reynolds apparently used to do his own stunts, and there was a scene calling for a ride over a waterfall in the movie Deliverance.
Burt didn’t want a stuntman or a dummy to take his place on the 25 ft. plunge. The back and forth between director John Frankenheimer and Burt went as follows:
Burt Reynolds says, 'I'll do the waterfall, we don't need a stunt man.’
John Frankenheimer says, 'No... no. We need a stunt man.'
Reynolds goes, 'No, we don't want that.'
Frankenheimer says, 'Ok, well we'll just use a stunt dummy; we'll just throw a dummy over.'
John Frankenheimer was nervous that Burt would get hurt. If anything had gone wrong, Reynolds could have left behind a production without a leading man, as well as, you know, an angry and grieving bunch of family and friends.
But sending a replacement over the falls wasn’t going to cut it for the Smokey and The Bandit actor. So Reynolds got into the canoe, and rode it out down the waterfall in the scene as you know it in Deliverance.
Reynolds said first his shoulder really hit a rock hard, and then his head hit another rock. He said the next thing he remembered was he was way down stream, all of his clothes were torn off.
Next thing after that he remembers, he's waking up in the hospital with John Frankenheimer at his bedside. Burt Reynolds recounted, 'I said to John, how'd it look... on the dailies?'
And John Frankenheimer said, 'It looked like a dummy falling over a waterfall.’
We all do dumb things, but reframe your missteps as a stepping stone on your path.
You know that our tradition holds that on Yom Kippur, we believe that God is the ultimate judge of our actions. There is even a tradition that our tears — our acknowledgement and sorrow over our inappropriate actions – are a kind of bribe that God, Hamelech Hamishpat just can't refuse.
God sees our regret and moves from his chair of justice, over to the chair of mercy, when handing down judgement.
But the Torah also teaches: ”You shall appoint for yourselves judges and officials." (Deut. 16:18) The simple meaning of course is that every society needs a court system in order to mediate justice in the land.
The Lubuvitcher Rebbe says, read the verse like this: "You shall appoint for yourselves judges." Meaning, you need to judge yourself. On Yom Kippur we believe that we are judged by God — but you can also throw your two cents in there…ourselves judging…seeing what’s working and what’s not working for us.
The surprising thing is that God might be more forgiving than we are. God understands regret and tears and stress. We are sometimes more like Jonah in the story we read in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, wanting a more strict justice.
Isn’t it interesting, how if you really love someone, it’s easier to forgive them?
If you have a trusting, loving relationship and your friend or significant other does something that hurts you, you are more likely to see that transgression as a one-time event. You will probably refer back to the goodness you love in them.
But we can be pretty tough on ourselves. We tell oursleves, “I should have known better. I’ll never change!” Because it’s difficult to be a fair judge for yourself — we are not always reliable narrators for our own lives. We still think that making mistakes is bad for us.
The story is told of spiritual seekers who, after a long, hard climb up a mountain, finally find themselves in front of the great teacher. Bowing deeply, they asked the question that had been burning inside them for so long: “How do we become wise?”
There was a long pause until the teacher emerged from meditation. Finally the reply came: “Good choices.”
“But, teacher, how do we make good choices?”
“From experience,” responded the wise one.
“And how do we get experience?”
“Bad choices,” smiled the teacher.
Feeling regret over bad choices is an indication that we are on the right track. But then you need to release that part of your past — you need to remember that you were doing the best you could at the time.
If you had known that your action would cause pain to others or yourself, you probably wouldn’t have done it, right? You had no idea how much you would regret it in the future. Retain what you learned from the event but release everything else.
When we forgive ourselves, we first and foremost recognize that we are human. We are not perfect.
In the movie Good Will Hunting there is a very powerful conversation between Will and his psychologist, Sean, about a young woman Will has just met.
WILL says: …She's different from the other girls I met. We have a really good time. She's smart, beautiful, fun...
SEAN: So, Call her up.
WILL: Why? So I can realize she's not so smart? That she's boring? You don't get it. Right now she's perfect. I don't want to ruin that.
SEAN: And right now you're perfect, too. Maybe you don't want to ruin that…that's a great philosophy, Will. That way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody……
SEAN continues: My wife's been dead two years, Will. She used to [pass gass] in her sleep. And when I think about her, those are the things I think about the most. Little idiosyncrasies that only I knew about. Those made her my wife. And she had the goods on me, too. Little things I do out of habit. People call those imperfections, Will. But ...ahhh....that's the good stuff. It's who we are. And we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds. You're not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense...that girl you met isn't, either.
— and scene —
Our weird stuff makes us real. And I’ll push it even further. The different things God gives each person – the differences in our bodies, the differences in the way our minds work – we need to get over looking at them as mistakes or problems, and remember that that's the good stuff – it's who we are.
This is the season of forgiveness. This year, think about including yourself as well. If you appoint yourself as the judge — rule mercifully. It will help you going forward on a healthier, more positive path. It can help make you more understanding and forgiving of others.
We all go over the waterfall, and we all have our imperfections — that’s part of the good stuff. This year, if you give other people the benefit of the doubt, give yourself some as well. And forgive yourself.
Gmar Chatimah Tovah