I got caught stealing money from work

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Cary’s classic column from

I was fired and I’m making restitution, but I’m dying of shame.

Dear Cary,

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

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

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.


Can I skip my friend’s wedding?

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Cary’s classic column from

I can’t afford to go plus I dread seeing my mean, stupid ex and his shiny new whatever


Hi Cary,

My question is simple, but the back story is complicated. A very good, old friend of mine is getting married this fall. She and her fiancé have communicated that they want me there. In fact, it’s been implied that our friendship will be compromised if I don’t attend.

There are two reasons I am very hesitant to go. The first is the money. I have to fly across the country and pay for a few days at a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Money is tight, and this will set me back hundreds of dollars. I live paycheck-to-paycheck right now.

The second reason is, my ex is going to be there. I was in a long-term relationship with a man. We had a long engagement (too long, in hindsight). We moved across the country together. Right after we moved, he suddenly broke up with me. Turns out, he met someone else immediately after we moved. A month after he dumped me, he married this other woman.

I’m still picking up the pieces of my life after the breakup. It devastated me emotionally and financially. I basically lost everything. If I go to my friend’s wedding, my ex and his new wife will be there. I haven’t seen this woman face-to-face. And I am almost certain I will cry.

I don’t want to make a scene at this wedding. I want to go — it’s important to me to be there. But I don’t know how I could spend hundreds of dollars I don’t have, only to be hurt and humiliated in public.

I’ve tried to talk to my friend about it, but she just keeps telling me how much she wants me there. I don’t want my friendship to be compromised. But I also don’t want credit card debt.

Should I Go?

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Should I Go,

Sometimes you get to do things for your own dignity. Sometimes you get to comfort your own soul, and tell your own soul, You know what, I’ve put you through a lot, and made you insecure and uncomfortable, and I know you are still hurting and you are going to be dreading going, so I am not going to force you into it; I’m going to wait for you to say OK.

So you talk to your soul like your soul was a kid you are taking care of. And you don’t drag her by the arm into the department store; you don’t shove her into the pool or into the classroom; you wait until she, of her own volition, indicates that she is ready and can prepare, on her own time, to walk in there on her own, and when she does she will show surprising strength because she has had time to heal. And you don’t assume that she will be ready when it’s convenient for you. You wait for her. You wait.

I have a feeling she’s not ready yet and that is fine.

You are still wounded. The wound is still fresh and might be reopened by an encounter with the same knife that caused it. You don’t have to risk that. You can give this wound time to heal.

You don’t have to go.

I mean, nobody’s stopping you. But you don’t have to. And it might be a good opportunity to get real with your friend. Has your friend asked you how you feel about the prospect of seeing your ex? Has she expressed any concern for your feelings? Or is she thinking only of her beautiful wedding and how special she’s going to feel having all her friends there?

This may be a good time to write your friend a letter and tell her how you want to remain friends but right now you have to take care of yourself.

You don’t have to be there for every Kodak moment. Some Kodak moments are best left to the photographers.

Don’t worry about regretting your decision. Instead, ask yourself what you want to take with you into the future. Do you want to take with you the debt you incurred because you could not say no, and the humiliation and anger you felt seeing your ex with his new wife? Or do you want to take with you the confidence that you can say no, and the money you saved, and the relief you feel knowing you did not have to see your ex?

What would you like to remember? Would you like to remember how you sort of knuckled under at the last minute and put yourself in debt and showed up just because? Or would you like to remember the courage you showed in making a hard decision that was best for you, and how this time you showed up not for somebody else in a distant town but for yourself, here, where you live?

You can fill your future with every imaginable item, or you can bring into the future only the things you want to bring into it, building your future like a house, furnishing it with sacred objects and memories.

I mean, it’s your choice. But you can see where I’m leaning. And I’m kind of angry at your friend, actually, for not making it more clear that she knows how hard it would be for you. Maybe she doesn’t know how hurt you still are. Or maybe she is thinking of no one but herself and her beautiful wedding.



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My secret is about to be revealed

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Cary’s classic column from

I told my husband I was a virgin when we married but I wasn’t. Now the guy I did it with is going to tell.

Dear Cary,

A secret from my youth is about to be exposed. When this happens, my life will implode. I can see the pain bearing down on me like a speeding train. I am stuck to the track and there is nothing I can do but wait for it to mow me down.

When my husband, “Mark,” and I were dating, I had a brief affair with his roommate. “Doug” and I had sex seven times over a period of three weeks. Then, it was over. We continued to be friendly with each other for a few months until Doug moved out to take a job in another state. He was replaced in the apartment by the man who eventually became my brother-in-law.

Mark and I got married 18 months after my indiscretion with Doug. We are happy. I cherish my husband more than anyone or anything in my life. There is nothing — no job, no person — that I would not give up for him. Mark is beautiful, smart, kind and caring. My marriage is the best thing I have ever had in my life. Now, it is about to be ripped away from me.

You see, I got a call from Doug two weeks ago. He informed me that he is planning a visit back to our town in a few months, and when he comes he is going to tell Mark about our affair. Why? Because he has become a born-again Christian and he believes that he will go to hell if he dies without confessing his sin.

Of course, his sin is my sin except for the fact that my sin is much greater.

Mark believes that I was a virgin on our wedding night. I wasn’t, obviously. Even worse is the fact that Doug was actually the first man I had sex with. This will kill Mark because he was a virgin when we got married. It means a lot to him to think that we are the only people on earth who know each other in this most intimate of ways. He loves the fact that, as I have actively led him to believe, no other man knows what my body feels like. He cherishes the notion that I don’t have sexual memories of any other man. And, before the feminists start sharpening their knives, let me just say that I love knowing the same thing about him. So, any member of the sisterhood who thinks that my husband is a Neanderthal can go fuck herself.

Nobody reading this can imagine my desperation. I have pleaded with Doug not to expose me as the fraud that I am. I have made every appeal that I can think of, to no avail. It is like beating my fists against a steel beam. Doug is absolutely convinced that keeping this secret will keep him from going to heaven. Against the threat of damnation, my words are worse than useless. I have caught myself hoping that Doug is struck down by lightning or a speeding bus before he is able to make his face-to-face revelation to the man we betrayed. I would pray for his death, but it seems ludicrous to ask God to kill somebody so that I can continue living a lie. I have to accept the fact that my husband is about to find out that I had sex with his best friend, even as I made him believe I was saving myself for him.

So, here I sit like a condemned prisoner awaiting my doom. I cannot bring myself even to contemplate what Mark is going to feel, say and do when he learns what I have done.

Should I start planning ways to rebuild my life after Mark divorces me? Would that be premature?

Sometimes I think I should just tell him myself. “Honey, I gave my virginity to Doug when you were out of the apartment one day 12 years ago. We fucked each other on the sly for several weeks, but you’re the only man I have been with since. Don’t be mad.” But who am I kidding? I don’t have the courage to do it. I have completely lost control of my life and I have no one to blame but myself.

What on earth am I going to do?

Falling From the Sky, Watching the Ground Rush Toward Me

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Falling,

You say you don’t have the courage to tell him yourself. Perhaps courage is not what you need. Perhaps what you need is to face necessity.

Telling him isn’t courageous, it’s just necessary. It’s a necessary response to circumstances — like leaping from a burning building. You just leap.

What exactly do you tell your husband, and how? You sit down somewhere quiet and private and tell him that you have been keeping a secret from him and it has come time to reveal it. You tell him that long ago you made a mistake and that in trying to lessen the consequences of that mistake you have only made them greater. You tell him that with the best of intentions — wanting to save him from hurt — you have hidden this from him, and now you are telling him so he doesn’t hear it from someone else.

And then you tell him the secret that you have been keeping. You tell him in neutral descriptive words free of implied catastrophe and threat. You don’t use words like “divorce.” You don’t say “fucked each other on the sly.” You find words that convey the facts of the situation without exciting the passions. You tell him you did this and you know it was wrong. You ask for his forgiveness and tell him you will do whatever it takes to make it right.

And then after that conversation with your husband you call this person and tell him that it won’t be necessary for him to visit bearing torture irons under robes of Christian virtue. You tell him that if he likes he can visit but that he should not expect to be greeted like a liberator, that you can’t say what your husband might do should he show up bearing news of your supposed dishonor.

In this way you reclaim some of the advantage of the aggressor. And make no mistake about it, whatever this person may claim, his mission is not one of mercy but of aggression.

I am no expert on Christianity’s various sects and what they may require of their believers. But I do know firsthand the practical benefits and the important limitations of making personal amends to those one has harmed. On this point the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are instructive. One is advised to make personal amends to those one has harmed “unless to do so would injure them or others.” In other words, at least for those who sincerely want to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, the point is clear: One does not clean up one’s past sins at the expense of others.

I suppose certain religious practices differ. The 12 Steps, after all, is not a religious rulebook, but a practical guide to living. But in my opinion one who disrupts the lives of others in the pursuit of private spiritual redemption has no right to do so, no responsibility to do so. He is more like a terrorist than a healer of wounds. Besides, isn’t confession of sins something that happens between the sinner and a representative of the church?

Be that as it may, you can’t stop him from coming. Nor, after you defuse the situation by telling your husband what it’s all about, does it really matter whether he comes or not.

What matters now is how you change your thinking. You and your husband have apparently believed that if you never experienced the touch of other bodies that you would be protected from all the doubt and insecurity of adult love. It is a beautiful idea that you and he have shared, but it is not an unassailable fortress on which to build a marriage. In fact it is more like a torture machine. And now you have to take apart your torture machine — this machine you built in good conscience, thinking it would protect you.

It seemed like the sensible thing, I’m sure, to build this machine; it does other things too: One feels a tantalizing tingle when one passes close by it, almost a sexual thing (mingling damnation with ecstasy in its hellish mortar and pestle). This machine of torture promised purity, and purity seemed valuable above all things. But purity is just a story we tell ourselves, a retreat from our bodies and their predilection for betrayal.

So you dismantle the torture machine. And you replace it with an ethics that comes from planet Earth. You do what has to be done. You tell the truth.

After all that cleansing of superstition, if there is any room left for hazy speculation, it is only this: In the end, this man may turn out to be the unexpected angel of acrid necessity.

I think my dad’s too old to vote

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Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Apr 15, 2008

He says he’s not really following politics, but is planning to vote anyway.

Dear Cary,

My 84-year-old father voted a straight ticket in the 2008 primary.

Now he says that at his age he doesn’t keep up with politics anymore. When he was younger he was very interested in politics and read everything he could get his hands on about the political agendas and knew what was what. He doesn’t even read the newspaper or watch the news on TV. He says it isn’t relevant for him now that he is at the end of his life.

Nevertheless, he has declared that he will vote in November!

My question is how do I tell my father that he shouldn’t vote if it isn’t relevant for him and he doesn’t know what is going on?

I told him that it will be relevant to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Help!,

My dad is 84, too. He’ll turn 85 in May — unless he makes a wrong turn and ends up back in April.

It could happen. He gets confused. You take your eyes off him, he’s in Ladies Wear. Or he’s deep in thought on a traffic island.

But we can’t tell him what to do. It’s all we can do to keep him from swallowing Drano and stuffing kittens in his pockets. There are limits, even with 24-hour surveillance.

So knowing what it is like to try to control the actions of an aging parent, I would advise you not to tell your father he shouldn’t vote. First, it’s not your decision. Second, as Jeeves might say, success in such an endeavor is far from assured, sir. And third, even if he writes in Hitler and Mussolini, the empire’s fate does not rest on the divinations of one confused octogenarian — unless he’s a federal judge.

Nor is the right to vote contingent on demonstrable competency — with good reason, as in the past “competency” has been pegged to attributes that have nothing to do with competence, such as gender and skin color.

So here is a better idea: Let your father do as he chooses, and meanwhile work to get out the vote for your side. If you turn out five voters, their votes will either add to or counteract the effect of your father’s vote, depending on what he decides once in the booth. Either way, you come out ahead.

There is one issue here that you cannot come out ahead on: Your father is getting old. His faculties are declining. There is no cure for this. It is not easy to watch and accept. It is not easy to stand back. You may find yourself trying to control things that you really cannot control. That will only bring you pain. It will draw you into conflicts that are really not about what they purport to be about. So I suggest that you simply treat your father with loving kindness and accept his gradual and inevitable decline.

His voting is the least of your worries. Pick your battles. You may have to take his car keys away. But he’s not going to run anybody down in the voting booth.

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