When I was in the second grade I stole a fifty cent piece from the dresser of a friend. I rather impulsively grabbed it when she was out of the room and stuffed it in my pocket. Even before I had taken it home I was beginning to feel queasy about what I had done but I was unable to find a way to return it without being caught in the act. My regrets grew into full blown guilt by the time I was hiding the coin in my room. I had no idea how to pay for my sin other than to carry my ill gotten gains with me each time I visited by friend in the hopes of finding a moment alone when I might return her money to her. It took a number of tries but I eventually placed the shiny half dollar back where it belonged.
Somehow my conscience would not allow me to feel as though I had done enough. I found myself leaving quarters and even dollar bills in my friend’s room as compensation for what I had done. I even considered confessing to her but never had enough courage to do so. Instead I began repeating the story of my theft over and over again when I went to confession in my parish Catholic church. Nonetheless I wasn’t able to shake the feeling of regret that seemed to follow me like a bad penny.
It never occurred to me that any of the priests to whom I admitted my sins might remember my story but one of them did and when I told him what I had done for the umpteenth time he cautioned me in frustration to either believe that my transgression had been forgiven or quit coming to him with my lack of faith that God had already absolved me. He went so far as to tell me that my unwillingness to pardon myself was far worse than the small transgression that I had so thoughtlessly committed against my friend. He urged me to move forward with my life and not keep looking back.
That moment was crucial in my development as an adult. It taught me the true meaning of reconciliation, a willingness to acknowledge that we humans may fall but we also have the possibility of reforming our ways. When such a change takes place it is time to focus on the beauty of the salvation that has occurred rather than to obsessively keep returning to the past. Just as I grew and learned from my experience as a very young child, so too do we all become different and often better versions of ourselves as we journey through life. Until we draw our last breaths there is always the possibility of righting wrongs we have committed and making peace with those that we have hurt. Once we do that it is toxic to either carry our own baggage of guilt or to force someone else to be weighed down by theirs. If forgiveness is to be real it must blot out the past.
There is a new trend to search through the words and actions of mostly famous people to find something that they may have done or said many years ago and hold them up to judgement and ridicule. It doesn’t appear to matter that they may have changed or that they have apologized. They are shamed and held accountable to such an extent that they sometimes lose their jobs and their reputations. It is a kind of modern day witch hunt with comments being taken out of context or twisted to the point of losing their original intent. This practice is intended to create havoc for the targeted individual and often comes with personal information that leads to harassment. Even when the people victimized by this technique attempt to provide explanations or make atonement they are often deemed eternally guilty without hope of forgiveness.
There is something quite wicked about refusing to allow a person or an entire group of people the benefit of reconciliation. It implies a kind of dictatorship of the mind that binds transgressions into a cycle of eternal punishment. Once someone has fallen there is no hope of rising again with this type of thinking. It runs contrary to our very humanity and pits us in lifelong struggles with one another. We become a nation of Hatfields and McCoys, Montagues and Capulets engaged in a never ending feud.
The reality is that most of us have done something in the past for which we ultimately felt regrets. We evolve as adults hopefully becoming better versions of ourselves. We each deserve the opportunity to be redeemed and seen as our wiser and kinder selves. Unless our former transgressions were so egregious as to require jail time, our sins should be forgotten once we have made peace with ourselves, our God and those that we may have hurt. The focus should be on who we are now, not who we once might have been.
People have the power to change. Nations have the power to change. Just as we should not hold the children of Germany responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents, so too should we be willing to focus on good intentions and efforts rather than only on the bad. It accomplishes nothing to spend time dwelling on past transgressions when there is more work on improving to be done. Throwing us into the shade of continual guilt trips is as wrong as I was when I so childishly obsessed over my own flawed character. It’s time we genuinely embrace forgiveness for those who earnestly seek it.