Learning to Forgive Ourselves – Free Ebook

Our refusal to forgive ourselves for our mistakes
tends to hang on a strong sense of how much

these were, in the end, avoidable. We obsessively
go back over our slips and errors and contrast

what did happen with what could so easily
have been skirted if we had not been so fatuous

and so witless. We experience recurring jabs
of pain at the disjuncture between the agonising

present and it’s now-vanished alternative:
we should never have written that email, we

should never have become involved with that
person, we should have listened more closely

to the advice, we should never have borrowed
the money…

longside the pain come questions: why didn’t
we have greater foresight? Why couldn’t

we muster more self-restraint? How could we
have been so indiscreet? From this close up,

there are no realistic, let alone kind, ways
to answer our punitive self-interrogations;

and they are, as a result, likely to go on
forever, without let up in agony. We will

at best conclude that we messed up because
we were greedy, because we were vain, shallow,

intemperate and weak-willed; that we have
ruined our lives because we are lustful, harebrained,

immature and egocentric. Our self-hatred will
grow ever more intense as we contrast our

soiled lives with the impeccable choices of
others. They – the reasonable and good ones,

the calm and happy ones – had it right all
along: they didn’t succumb to temptations,

they stayed steady and dutiful, they kept
their priorities straight and paid due respect

to public opinion. The overall conclusion
is that we are ultimately simply awful people

  • who should probably (depending on the severity
    of the problem we are in) kill ourselves forthwith.

If we are to avoid eternal self-loathing or
suicide, we will have to find another approach.

We cannot forever explain our mistakes by
examining this or that local flaw in our characters.

We need to lean on a far more holistic and
objective answer. We messed up because we

are human – which in this context means that
we belong to a species that is compelled by

its very nature to steer through life without
the knowledge and experience required to ensure

goodness and wisdom, kindness and happiness.

We may regret this or that error, but from
the right distance, we are fundamentally steering

blind and are therefore doomed to slip up
with greater or lesser severity at some point

or other. We can’t know exactly who we should
marry. We don’t have foolproof knowledge

of where our real talents lie, let alone how
the economy will perform, and therefore can’t

determine the sort of career we should optimally
invest ourselves in. We may make a reasonable

guess at what activities and situations might
be dangerous but we cannot know ahead of time

exactly where the true risks lie; there are
landmines buried everywhere. Assumptions made

in one era may fail to be correct in another.
We can be caught out by swift changes in mores:

what could have been acceptable at one point
can turn into an indecency a few years later.

Certainly we may have experienced a particularly
jagged edge of life which has destroyed us

in a very specific way. But though the wound
is local, injury is almost endemic. It could

have been foretold from the start that something
rather bad would at some moment happen to

us, not because there is anything especially
deficient about us, but because human brains

are lacking the necessary matter to lead us
faultlessly through the decades-long obstacle

course of life.

That said, our self-contempt tends to be heightened
because we refuse to think about luck. We

look at where we have ended up and compare
it with the more fortunate places of others

and come to only one verdict: we must have
been more stupid than they are, our characters

must have been more corrupt than theirs. But
in the process, we miss out on a critical

explanatory factor: whatever our flaws may
have been, we may have had to contend with

a particularly vicious swerve of fate. There
have been people every bit as hasty or unreasonable

as us who (for now) have sailed on unmolested.
Events have pressed more harshly on the vulnerable

parts of our personalities. Anyone who would
have been tested as we were would have failed

in comparable ways. In assessing our destiny,
we should remember to claim a very large role

for the forces of foul luck.

At the same time, we do ourselves an injury
by comparing ourselves only with those above

us, rather than considering our state in the
round. In our abject moods, we look enviously

at those who are presently riding high while
failing to consider the hundreds, even millions,

of those who have endured destinies ever bit
as cruel as our own. The human condition has

seldom been a smiling one: we should not compound
our difficulties by refusing to consider all

those who have wept every bit as much, and
lost even more than us.

Nor should we keep equating ourselves with
people who, while they might have some superficial

similarities with ourselves in terms of age
or educational background, in the end had

incomparably different psychological beginnings.
They didn’t have our mother or our father,

they didn’t have to go through what we did,
they didn’t have to master our emotional

immaturities. They may seem to be our equals
but they in fact belong to a more blessed

cohort. We should nurture sympathy for ourselves
based on a fine grained appreciation of the

specific burdens we had to take on.

A degree of regret may sometimes be helpful:
it can help us to take stock of errors and

to avoid the worst of the pitfalls next time.
But runaway self-hatred serves no useful purpose

whatsoever; it is in its masochistic way an
indulgence we can’t afford. We may be foolish,

but this doesn’t single us out as particularly
awful or unusual, it only confirms that we

belong to the human race, a fact for which
we deserve limitless sympathy

and compassion.

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