No news on my grandmother today. My parents were at the hospital all day, no time for email.
I was really, really busy today. For a change, I did not get totally exhausted, but I was really out of breath a couple of times. I have an even busier day tomorrow… the list of things I have to do is quite lengthy, and I hope I live through it. (Sorry, a bit of drama there…) I do have a pretty light day for Wednesday before my usual busy Thursday, and haven’t looked at my schedule for the weekend but it is often light.
“Whatever we focus on is bound to expand. Where we see the negative, we call forth more negative. And where we see the positive, we call forth more positive. Having loved and lost, I now love more passionately. Having won and lost, I now win more soberly. Having tasted the bitter, I now savor the sweet.”
— Marianne Williamson
WE HAVE ALL DONE THINGS THAT WE ARE NOT PROUD OF. Perhaps we were not there for a friend when they needed us, or we may have been responsible for unhappiness in our family. These sorts of past actions can leave us feeling ashamed and guilty, and we can end up carrying our guilt for years.
Guilt is probably one of the most debilitating and negative emotions there is – one that can, and often does, destroy a person’s life. But if we want to live happy lives, we need to deal with the consequences of our past actions and move on, rather than allowing our lives to be wracked with guilt.
Feeling guilty should not be confused with taking responsibility for our past. Responsibility means “the ability to respond”, and therefore taking responsibility means that we actively address the consequences of our actions in whatever way we can, in particular by changing our behavior patterns. Taking responsibility also includes moving on by making peace with the past.
Unlike taking responsibility, which is redeeming and positive, guilt has absolutely no value. Guilt does not encourage us to change in positive ways but debilitates us, leaving us unable to take the action we need to bring about change.
Breaking out of the guilt cycle
As a behavior pattern, guilt often becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: we do something, we feel guilty about it, we punish ourselves and, because we feel bad, we end up repeating our behavior at the next available opportunity.
This debilitating cycle continues largely because we do not take full responsibility for our actions or for changing our behavior. So how do we start the process of taking responsibility? By considering, with complete honesty, the part we play in any situation and by accepting our role in creating the events.
The purpose of this self-examination is to evaluate truthfully whatever occurred so that we can learn how we contributed. Through learning and honest self-assessment, we change our thinking and behavior. We can also forgive ourselves and move on with experience and wisdom.
In this process, forgiveness is vital. However, forgiveness is not what we generally believe it to be.
The Toltec approach holds that real forgiveness has nothing to do with feeling sorry or apologizing – neither of which actually changes anything. True forgiveness is contained in its literal meaning. The word “forgive” is very old, and the prefix “for” means literally “to reject.” So the word as a whole means “to reject the giving”.
We need “to reject the giving” because, if we think we have wronged someone, we use our sense of guilt to “give” to that person. By giving, we hope to make it better, and to exonerate ourselves from our actions. Conversely, if we feel that someone has wronged us, we will continue to demand payment for that offense, and thus want the other person to “give” to us.
But giving from a sense of guilt can never lead us to forgiveness. Neither can forgiveness be bestowed by another; it has to be brought about by ourselves. In the end, unless we can reject all this giving and truly forgive ourselves, we can never really move on and be free of the past.
How does forgiveness work in practice? Say that you have had a history of being abusive towards others, but have started to take responsibility for your past by changing your behavior. The reality is that you can still have unresolved feelings about what you have done. The process of forgiveness enables you to resolve these unresolved feelings so that you can move on.
It is important to remember that feeling bad about the past never really allows us to move on. What’s more, if we indulge in feeling bad, this implies that we view our past as meaningless and of no value. What a waste! For, if we have caused harm, surely we should try to learn from our actions rather than living with a heap of regrets?
Forgiving ourselves involves finding value in our experiences. Instead of just writing off an experience as a painful episode, and trying to forget it, we should look for the value in that experience and try to take out of the experience whatever we can learn.
Toltecs look upon life as a journey of learning, and say that all true learning or knowledge is experiential. Because we are stubborn and tend to avoid change, much of our learning does come about through painful experiences. However, if we wish to grow and to use our experiences as a learning curve, it is vital that we focus on what we have learned, rather than the pain.
By searching for learning and value from our past, we ensure that there is no more need to give or demand payment – we can, indeed, “reject the giving” and so forgive.
To take meaning and value out of any situation, simply ask, “What has this taught me? What lessons can I learn: about myself, about others and about my life? How can I use this new knowledge to change my thinking and behavior and help others avoid the same trap?”
In this light our past, instead of being meaningless and shameful, has a positive and life-enhancing value. By learning to handle our past, and by taking the steps to forgive ourselves in the true sense of the word, we can let go of the debilitating consequences of guilt, and finally move on.
© 2002 Theun Mares