Forgiveness extends to even our harshest-critic: ourselves.
BY AK CARROLL
“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13, selected)
Get quiet. Really quiet. Turn off the music. Close the windows. Put down your phone.
Do you hear it?
That voice in your head — the one that doesn’t stop talking even when you think that you’re all on your own; the one that’s narrating right now as you’re reading this text, telling you that you’re making a good choice, wasting your time, or have better things to do.
More and more I’m aware of how our constant inner narratives influence our ability to be in the world. The messages we tell ourselves are the ones we both benefit and suffer from most. So how do we ensure that those messages are true? And how can we respond if we realize they aren't?
I’ve been traveling for much of the past month; mostly for work, but also a bit for myself. In the middle of August, I spent a weekend in Lausanne, a small French-speaking city on the rim of Lake Geneva. I’d picked the location on a bit of a whim. What’s not to like about water and wine and the French part of Switzerland late in the summer? But from the moment I boarded the train Friday morning to the hour it arrived back in Zurich on Sunday, I found myself fighting one prominent message: You are continually messing things up.
This notion had started weeks prior, when (after four failed attempts to use the online checkout) I booked the wrong ticket for my return trip to Zurich. After that blunder, I spent days researching accommodations down by the lake, up in the city, near the train station and tucked into hillsides. I selected a hotel with a lakefront view, then, at the last minute, canceled in favor of an Airbnb that was cheaper, charming, and close to the center.
The day of my journey, I struggled with selecting a seat on the train. Which view was most lovely? Which car was most quiet? Which seat would ensure the best overall experience and least interference from other travelers? Such meticulous standards did not set me up for satisfaction or peace.
I spent half of the train ride looking up restaurants and shifting from one car to the next in quest of a better viewpoint. After much deliberation, I settled at a table in the dining car (which was one of the last seats remaining at that point in the trip) and made a reservation at Michelin-starred restaurant with a three-course menu that was just within my budget.
When we arrived at the Lausanne station, I got off the train, breathed in the air, and promptly began walking in the wrong direction.
This is really just how it goes.
Eventually, I noticed my error, sorted it out, and reached the apartment, where I met my host, who was delightful. I dropped off my bags and made for a park just up the hill, where I sipped a glass of rosé on the last open bench as the sun turned to pastels and sank into the Alps.
This is fine, I told myself. You’re going to be fine.
When I got to the restaurant, which was housed in the historic and opulent Palace Hotel, I immediately sensed I was out of my depth, probably two times over. You can handle this, I told myself. You’ve done this before. You know how to blend in. I also recalled that I’d checked in advance. I knew what I wanted and I knew I could have it.
Except that I couldn’t, because the three-course meal I had snooped out online was only offered at lunch and now it was dinner. Which meant that all of the budget I’d reserved for this meal could cover one dish, and maybe a beverage.
Still, I told myself this would be fine. This is what you wanted, I told me. This is an experience. This trip was a good choice.
I’m not sure if it was the look that I got from the well-rehearsed staff, the blisters I formed on my post-dinner walk, waking up to the sound of perpetual traffic at three in the morning, or stepping in dog pee on my way to the bathroom that pushed me over the edge of granting me grace. But at some point, I snapped.
These had all been my choices. This had all been my fault. There was no one else to blame, and too much had gone wrong to just let it be. The voice I’d been coaching to treat me with care, shifted in tone and doused me with guilt.
You should have known better, she told me. Why do you always do this? Why can’t you ever make the right choice? You can’t trust yourself. You’ll never be happy.
We blame ourselves for all sorts of things: hitting a red light when we’re already late, misreading the date on a bill, forgetting a birthday, botching an interview, losing a friend. That ongoing story that runs underneath doesn’t censor the judgments we make on ourselves, the names that we call or the language we use — words we’d never think of saying to someone we actually care for.
To forgive is to let go, to release or set free someone who owes something to you, a debt of some kind. It is letting them walk without demanding a dime.
When Jesus talks about forgiveness, he talks about debt. He tells the story of a servant who has made some mistakes and now owes his master, a king, a great deal of money. There is no hope for the man to ever pay it all back. The debt is too great. His life is too short. Even the sale of his possessions and enslavement of his wife and children would not be enough to make everything right. The man begs for forgiveness, and the king sets him free. The king offers forgiveness with the trust that the servant will then do the same.
Those of us who grow up in the Church are taught to forgive as Christ forgave us. We are taught to let go of what is owed or done against us in response to the greater forgiveness that we have been offered. We are not really taught to do this with ourselves.
In some ways, it is easier to forgive when the debtor is another human. If I set my brother or sister free from what he or she owes me, I need never let it come up again. I can offer them grace and remind them that he is forgiven. It’s a different story when the slave and the master are one and the same, and both are me. I find it difficult to let myself go when I’m always there to remind me of what I did wrong.
But if I cannot be gentle and gracious and patient with myself, how can I really forgive someone else? How does a prisoner set someone else free?
When we are charged to “forgive one another, as Christ forgave us,” I think there’s a piece of the puzzle that’s missing. How can I forgive others, if I cannot forgive myself? And how can I possibly accept the forgiveness of the Divine, if I am constantly struggling with the weight of my own expectations and self-disappointment? If I am forever aware of my debt?
Before we can offer forgiveness, we need to know what it means to be forgiven. We need to know what it means to be set free from the voice that critiques and condemns, to be set free from ourselves.
If I am to really accept the gift of forgiveness — be it from God or from another person — first I need to offer that gift to myself. I need to believe I can have it without working to earn it. Otherwise, I’ll never really be free.
My second day in Lausanne, after stepping in dog pee, cutting myself while shaving my legs, and dousing my cereal in a flood of sour milk, I stepped out on the balcony and took some deep breaths. I told myself that this was just how things went for me. Of course, this all happened. Of course, you messed up. Why would you expect that it would all go as planned?
And it was there that I caught myself. Why would I expect that it would all go as planned? Why would anyone expect that? And at that moment the Spirit of forgiveness and the spirit inside me sighed together in perfect unity. I forgave me for being so hard on myself, and I told me that I had not messed up my life, or this trip, or even this day.
I booked a hotel down the street and left a note for my host. I explained my situation and why I needed to leave. I told her it was not her fault, and that I did not hold it against her. And because I did not hold it against me either, I was actually able to let that all go.
It may seem like a small thing to forgive myself for a poor choice of accommodations, a missed opportunity, or a weekend gone wrong, but it was not insignificant. If I cannot forgive myself for small things or let myself go when I’ve caused disappointment, I’ll never be able to release the big debts or to offer the gift that I most need to give. I’ll never be able to set others free.
That voice in your head may not ever be silent. I know I’m a long way from the day that the narrative stops, and maybe the goal should not be to shut it off altogether. It may be enough to make a change in tone; a change in perspective. If you make friends with the voice that is telling your story, you can reshape the way that the story is told.
You can pause at the moment when the judgment is formed and remind yourself of the forgiveness you’ve already been offered, both from yourself and also from God. Sit for a moment and take back that gift. Listen to the voice that says, You are okay. You are more than okay. You are loved. You are free.