Recently, I talked with a friend who was beating himself up over something really stupid that he had done. It wasn't anything immoral or criminal. It was one of those universal momentary lapses in judgement, where something inappropriate was said, that we have all had at one point in our lives. However, because it involved another person, and perception is reality, it had farther reaching effects than he ever anticipated. Obviously, there is more to the story, but this is enough to get the general idea.
As we talked, he told me that he couldn't let it go, because to do so felt like he was letting himself off the hook and not taking responsibility for what he had done. In fact he had done everything he could to make amends for what he had done. He owned up to and immediately recognized his mistake, apologized, and received and complied with the immediate consequences.
Now he has to live with the longer term consequences of his actions and the fact that the person involved will be affected by those consequences as well. It was a painful conversation to have with him, because he really feels bad and wants to take the brunt of the consequences so the other person is unaffected. He is also a person who doesn't have too much faith in himself and his accomplishments. He tends to beat himself up over his lack of accomplishments and his mistakes. He rarely recognizes the good things in himself. And this incident is re-enforcing his lack of trust in himself.
As we talked, it became clear to me that he really did need to let this go and move on. I told him: You are bigger than this incident. The sum total of who you are as a person is much bigger than this one incident. You need to remember that you are human and imperfect; therefore, you make mistakes. You need to recognize, not just, your error, but also the lessons learned and then move forward, letting this go but holding onto the lessons. I'm not saying you won't remember this and you won't feel bad about the consequences, but you cannot let this one incident define who you are. Learn from this, let it go, and move onto become better.
My friend listened and then said: You know this is easier for people who believe in God. People who believe in God seem to have an easier time moving past things like this.
My friend is agnostic, so I can't have the same conversation with him that I would have with most of my friends about giving it to God, letting him take care of it, and asking for and receiving God's forgiveness. I did think it was illuminating that he was the one bringing God into the conversation when I had made no mention of him in what I told him previously.
My friend started to go on to give more reasons why he couldn't let this go, when I impatiently interrupted: With or without God in your life, you need to move on from this and, yes, forgive yourself. You will hold yourself back if you hold onto this and let it define you. For you this isn't about faith in God, this is about your faith in yourself, your trust in yourself. This is about you taking responsibility, which you have done, and accepting the consequences, which you are doing. This is about being man enough to say: I made a mistake. I will learn the needed lessons here and move forward. I will remember to be better in similar situations. This is about you learning to accept and forgive yourself.
The phone was silent. As I waited for him to respond I had this thought: I need to take my own advice.
We continued our conversation, but that thought stayed with me. And I thought how fortunate I was to know that God lives, hears my prayers, knows my heart and has faith in me.
I don't know if any of what I said helped my friend, but I know it helped me. I haven't been able to stop thinking about our conversation. I hope my friend can find the way to move forward from this and allow himself to let it go.