It was one of those classic “you just wait until your father gets home” parenting moments.
I opened the door and heard the pounding of little feet as my five year old son ran to his room.
“What’s going on?” I asked my wife.
She had the look. The look that has been passed down from mother to mother since the dawn of time.
“You need to go have a talk with your son.”
Your son. Of course they are always my kids when they misbehave.
I walked in his room to find him sobbing under his bed sheets. Sitting down next to the little bump in the middle of the bed, I asked him what happened. I’ll never forget what he said next.
“Don’t talk to me. I’m not your son anymore,” he cried from under his covers.
“What? Why would you say that,” I asked.
“You need to get a new son. I’m not your son anymore,” he cried again.
I pulled back the covers and held his face in my hands. He didn’t want to look at me, so I pulled him so close that his wet nose was pressed against mine.
“Nothing you ever do, nothing I do, and nothing that ever happens to either of us could mean that you aren’t my son anymore. You will always, forever, be my son.”
Everyone screws up. Nobody's perfect and we all make mistakes.
What was going on with my son in that moment? Had he done something so atrocious that he thought I would disown him? No, it wasn’t that. To be honest, I can’t even remember what he did. He was experiencing something far more universal.
My son had fallen prey to the one thing that makes it nearly impossible to forgive yourself or forgive others: he confused who he was with what he had done.
Confusing who we are with what we do is a trap. It prevents us from seeing ourselves and others as we really are. And we all fall into this trap from time to time.
Everyone screws up. Nobody's perfect and we all make mistakes. Sometimes we make a bad choice thinking it’s a good one. Other times we definitely know something isn’t a good choice, and we choose it anyway. This is part of life.
The great danger comes from allowing what we do wrong to define who we are.
Since the dawn of time, everyone from the great philosopher to the shepherd in the field has wondered who they are and what they are here for. Finding answers to these great questions of life are at the heart of our motivations and movements. Everyone wants to know their identity and purpose.
Life turns into a dangerous roller coaster ride when we fall into the trap of allowing what we do to define who we are. When we have great achievements, lots of stuff, power, and wealth - then we are valued and good and loved. When we make mistakes, lose position or influence, lack possessions and wealth - then we don’t matter and we lose our identity and purpose.
You can see why this makes forgiving so difficult.
If someone hurts me and I let what they do define who they are, then all I can see is their action. The action is always wrong. It always hurts. So the person is always wrong and always hurts. And I can’t forgive them.
If someone hurts me and I see things as they really are, then I will see that this is another person called to be the-best-version-of-himself. I see his action was wrong and it hurt me, but I also see we are all on this same journey, and I’ve made mistakes just as he has. Further, I see that the best-version-of-myself is forgiving and free from the burden of bitterness. When I see things rightly, I can forgive what he has done because of who he is and who I am.
In the same way, if I do something wrong and I let what I have done define who I am, then all I see is my failure. The action is always wrong, it always fall short of who I am, and so I am wrong and I fall short. I can’t forgive myself.
In his book Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebody, Dr. Allen Hunt says, “That force [forgiveness] frees you from the wounds and bondage of the past, from harm you have suffered as well as from harm you have caused. And it sets you free to move forward more strongly into the bold, divine future God has in store for you.”
“His forgiveness did not make him forget Millie’s mistake; his forgiveness allowed him to move past it.”
Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebody by Allen Hunt
In the same way, if I see things as they really are, then I see that I am on a journey to become the-best-version-of-myself. I see every action as a step either towards or away from that self, and when I intentionally or unintentionally step away, I know that every moment is another chance to make a step back in the right direction. I forgive myself because I know that the best-version-of-myself is forgiving. I focus on doing the next right thing.
This is the secret to forgiving yourself and forgiving others: to see yourself and others for who you really are, not for what you have done.