I’ve been really, really hard on myself for as long as I can remember. In elementary school, I cried when I got a single word wrong on a spelling test, ruining my perfect streak of perfect scores. I played baseball and softball growing up – probably the worst sports an extremely self-critical person can play. When something didn’t go my way on the field, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I cried in sixth grade again over a math test gone awry. I got a B.
For better or for worse, Duke has softened some aspects of my self-perfectionism. If I beat myself up for every bad grade I got at this place, I’d look like I’d just left the boxing ring – and I don’t know how to box. But there are some things for which I still struggle to forgive myself.
I only know my own experience, but if I had to guess, I’d say I feel guilt, shame, and embarrassment much more so than I imagine others do. When I missed that one spelling word, it wasn’t a moment of forgetfulness or a lapse in my attention – it was a reflection on my self-worth. Never mind that softball is a team sport – if I played a bad game and we happened to lose, it was my fault. I’d brood and stew incessantly. I’d cry. I couldn’t get out of my head.
These feelings are much fewer and farther between, but they still happen. Nowadays, what really gets me are the moments when I feel I’ve broken the rules, or when I’ve hurt someone. You can tell me it was a mistake and that I need to move on as many times as you want, but that’s not going to change much. The essential fact remains – I did something bad.
If I’m being really honest, I don’t know if I’m on Honor Council because I hold my personal values with high esteem, or because I’m terrified of breaking the rules. It’s probably some combination of the two. It’s hard for me to encourage others not to cheat when I can’t help but wonder if all of my own actions have been ethically sound. Maybe that’s exactly the point – no one ever knows but we make the best decisions we can. On the spectrum of decision making, black and white are miniscule. The gray area is vast.
In all the time I’ve spent thinking about the missteps I’ve taken over the course of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that forgiveness is one of the best things we can do, both for ourselves and for the world. I worry that in encouraging ethical behavior, both here at Duke and more broadly, we seem to suggest that no mistakes whatsoever are tolerable. Take it from someone who is far too aware of her own shortcomings – it is so easy to mess up.
I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t have rules and guidelines for our behavior, or that we should have unlimited free passes should we make a mistake, intentional or not. What I do mean to suggest is that forgiveness is powerful. To forgive someone is to say: I see you. You’re human. It’s possible I would have acted the same way.
Are there actions so heinous they render themselves unforgivable? Are there people so innately bad that forgiveness is inconceivable? Perhaps. I don’t think I’m in a position to argue one way or the other. I believe it to be true, though, and I sincerely hope, that the vast majority of mistakes we encounter – whether they be our own or others’ – are not of this sort. In most circumstances, I believe in second chances.
As people in general and as a community at large, we are better served when we are able to forgive. Forgiveness need not be immediate; oftentimes anger is a completely appropriate response. Regardless, I’d encourage us all to try. Maybe the two can coexist.
Even on my best days, I am hopelessly and painfully human. Perhaps you are, too. I’m working on forgiving, striving for the day when I am as quick to forgive myself as I am to criticize. Surely we can hold our values and our desire for greatness in tandem with the ability to give forgiveness, both to others and to ourselves.
And if you’re ever looking for someone to make you feel better about all the mistakes you’ve made, I’m here! Wait – there I go again. Let me rephrase that. If you’re ever looking for someone who wants to practice forgiving herself and recognizing her value even when she messes up, I’m your girl.