Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Apr 29, 2009
I was fired and I’m making restitution, but I’m dying of shame.
I stole a large sum of money over a period of time from my job and was appropriately fired. I agreed to work out a repayment plan for all the money that I owe.
Although I am extremely lucky with the outcome, I feel remorseful and ashamed of what I did. I even attempted to commit suicide for the pain and guilt I felt (because of this situation, coupled with other things going on in my life). My career is probably shot to hell, I probably lost the trust of many co-workers/friends and I can’t seem to move forward with my life.
I knew that what I did was wrong and I am deeply sorry for what I have done, but I can’t seem to get past this. How do I forgive myself for what has happened and move forward?
Ashamed and Lost in Chicago
Dear Ashamed and Lost,
Self-forgiveness comes from a recognition that though we have done wrong things, we retain a core self that is worthy of love.
There is a paradox, or difficulty, at the heart of this, whether you believe in an external power of forgiveness or not. We face what we have done, no matter how awful, but we come to this action filled with self-love. How can this be? How can we not hate ourselves for what we have done? How can we not grind our teeth at night for how we have screwed up our lives and the lives of others? And if we still love ourselves, does that mean that we believe we are innocent?
No. We are not saying we are innocent of the crime we have committed. We are saying that no matter how great our crime, we retain some kernel of innocent humanity, and that we remain deserving of love.
We balance these seemingly contradictory truths and live with them: Yes, even after committing a crime, we retain an innocent core self; it may only exist as a ghost self, or a fragile impression, a faint tracing of past innocence; but it is there. We were born into innocence, and that fact remains. It is to that self that we direct our nurturance and love.
This is a matter of the heart. But that is not all there is to it. There is a worldly component. When we transgress, we are cast out. A firing is a casting out. Yet unlike a society or village that might cast you out and then welcome you back from the forest, or a penal system that might imprison you and then release you, a company may fire you and forget you. There is little hope of being welcomed back to this particular company. Yet you need, for your own resurrection, to enact some kind of return. So perhaps you will feel it necessary to return to this same field with a different company. Or you will embark on a similar field, in a way that is informed by what you have learned through your transgression. In this way, having been cast out, you reinvent yourself in order to make a kind of return.
The ritual of exile and return makes vivid our passage. It gives us the feeling of “moving on.” Lacking that ritual, you would naturally feel stuck. Look for ways to live in the world openly as a person who has committed a transgression and is making restitution. Perhaps you can be of help to others who are also struggling with feeling stuck and full of self-hatred. That will take your mind off your own problems and give you a way to be useful. Being useful in the world heals us and gives us back our place. It is one way of “returning.” Speaking openly of what we have done and how we are working to correct it empowers us, and it empowers others; it takes the sting of shame away.
Finally, let me just say, as a layperson with no religious or political standing, as somebody you might sit next to on the bus: You are a flawed human being just like the rest of us, deserving of love and respect just like the rest of us. You needn’t punish yourself any more. You’re doing your time.