by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.
“You are your own worst enemy,” my mamma told me many times in my life. And she was right. She rarely had to punish me when I did something wrong because I did a good enough job punishing myself. My guilt-ridden conscience would unleash a floodtide of remorse and anguish over my mistakes and shortcomings. I have often found it easier to forgive others than to forgive myself.
Certainly, condemnation by another person is hard to swallow and contend with, but self-condemnation can be even more difficult to bear and is destructive. In self-condemnation, we condemn ourselves by our own harsh judgment. We condemn our failure to do or be something we feel we should do or be. The trap we too easily fall into, however, is that we incorrectly think self-condemnation is the same as self-examination or self-knowledge. So, we either avoid examining ourselves and gaining the insight that helps us change and grow, or we stay so focused on our past failings that we can’t move beyond them and progress into a lesson well learned.
The horrific events at Virginia Tech continue to tug at the hearts of our nation, and especially the students. My own heart shuddered when I heard a discussion on how individuals who experience traumatic events often struggle with guilt. This guilt was not only described as survivors’ guilt but also guilt for actions not taken. This type of guilt would make one believe that their lack of action was responsible for, or at least contributed to, the endangerment of others.
Dear students, please don’t walk down the crippling path of such self-condemnation. It is a dead-end road that serves no good purpose and definitely does not help or heal. It’s a road you can only drive in reverse; it will never take you forward.
I’m reminded of my own college days. I wasn’t faced with a troubled student like Cho Seung-hui, who decided to take the lives of many fellow students before taking his own. I was, however, faced with two individuals who committed suicide, an individual who stalked me and another who sexually harassed me. In each case I felt guilty, wondering what might have happened if I had responded or acted differently.
Twice, I had conversations with individuals who took their own lives a couple of days later, and I accused myself of not saying what I should have or could have said or of saying something I should not have said. I rebuked myself for not expressing my concern or fear to anyone.
My answer to being stalked was to change jobs and move, rather than to report the person to the police. Nor did I turn in the professor who tried to sell a good exam grade for sexual favors. For years, I struggled with guilt, wondering if my non-actions resulted in other lives harmed. My stalker and harasser never made local or national news, but that didn’t lessen my self-condemnation.
It was a fresh read of the story about Jesus and the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11) that taught me I could love and forgive myself, and it showed me how. I had always viewed this account as a lesson about condemning others — “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.” The Pharisees are portrayed as arrogant — presenting themselves as judge and jury for this woman and obviously considering themselves impeccably qualified to do so. But they are soon convicted by their own self-condemnation.
It was the end of the story that brought home to me a life-altering lesson — a lesson on loving and forgiving myself in spite of my failings. Jesus addresses the woman, “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?” She answers, “No one, Master.” Then Jesus says, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
If Jesus didn’t condemn her, then neither should she condemn herself. And I saw this was true for me, too. It told me I could continue my life journey, learning from the many lessons along the way and doing my best to not repeat mistakes.
We live and act in the present. We make decisions to the best of our ability based upon our knowledge and values at the present moment. We may not always make the best choices. And sometimes we totally fail in our judgment. But the paradox is that in failure, we change. The important question is more about how we handle and react to failures.
Hindsight fuels condemnation and never helps us improve our life right now — mostly because in hindsight we can only look at the past and judge the past, never the present or future. I now see that the only view that can help us in the present and give us hope and promise for the future is God’s point of view.
And it’s His view that helps us gain self-knowledge. The fact is, the better we know ourselves, the better we can know and understand others, too. Self-knowledge is an awareness of the self that God sees in us — good and worthwhile, made in His image and likeness. This spiritual understanding helps us discern the self God created and helps us discover our potential and fulfill our life purpose. God has given us the ability to be everything He created us to be, and this includes making good and wise decisions.
A loving and forgiving God asks us to do the same for others and for ourselves. So, we must give ourselves a break from time to time on this life journey. We can’t change the past, but we can keep learning how to do a better job living the present, and we can alter the path of our future. Self-knowledge — not self-condemnation — will keep us from repeating mistakes and enable us to put to good practice the lessons learned.