The journey to forgiveness is a worthwhile path

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In a comedy sketch, Bill Cosby tells a story where his daughter did something she knew she wasn't supposed to do--when he confronted the child, "why did you do that?" the child answered, "I don't know!"  It's not just children.  Author Donald Antrim wrote, "Human beings in stressful relationships will frequently behave in ways that contradict or even reverse their own most certain expectations."

Who hasn't done something they knew was wrong--even as they were doing it?  Who hasn't asked "why did I do that?"  Who hasn't lamented "I knew better"?

Let's move a step further--after making such a mistake, some people continually punish themselves and focus on the guilt.  The end result is pain from being locked in the past.  The antidote isn't to just sweep things under the rug and forget about them.  The solution is forgiveness.

Forgiveness, for many, is an important spiritual strength.  Studies have shown that forgiveness of others can be an important component to recovering from interpersonal trauma.  Yet, as difficult as it can be to forgive others, it can be most difficult for individuals to forgive themselves.

It is relatively easy to excuse an honest mistake--something that came out of the blue and was unexpected.  On the other hand, those things that fall in the category of "I knew better," the willful acts, the actions taken against the conscience, are much more difficult to resolve.  However, forgiveness, especially of the self, can be vital to growing from past mistakes and learning to avoid them in the future.  

There are some steps that can be helpful in reaching a sense of forgiveness.  The first step is to admit something has been done that is wrong.  The second step is to accept the feelings of guilt.  Third, see forgiveness as a process, a journey.  Fourth, practice forgiving others who have done wrong.

Feelings of guilt and pains of conscience are not, in themselves bad.  Guilt and conscience orient our overall actions and character to align with our values.  Guilt helps us quickly identify when we've gone astray.  In these ways, a sense of guilt helps us grow.

Guilt becomes an obstacle when it becomes chronic.  If held too long, guilt can become shame--shame means we identify ourselves with our mistakes and eventually believe we are the mistake.  Forgiveness opens us up to be responsible for our mistakes and gives us opportunities to correct them without making the mistake a part of our identity.

If you find yourself in the midst of chronic guilt or shame, your Chaplain can be an excellent resource.  Everything shared with the Chaplain is 100 percent confidential so you can feel free to talk about anything.  And Chaplains are educated in the ways of forgiveness.  Your Chaplain can help you find your way to forgive and then to grow.

Falling short of expectations from time to time is part of the human experience.  We've all been there.  But we don't need to stay there.