Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself.
Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof. It stated:
“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love. True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.”
How true this is. We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves. Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye. But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly. Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God. What does that mean? It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it. You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.
My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven. Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing. Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing.
Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives. We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade. We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place. Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred. In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it. It’s a difficult balance to maintain.
Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves. And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person. Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place. Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere. We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment. And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.
As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good. Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory. Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view. In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing! So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget.
A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships. Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us. This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well. If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you. Chances are, you aren’t that bad. And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life. You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good.
You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online! There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life. Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening. If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad.
So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either. As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.” And so it is. Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.