There are a few situations in my life for which feelings of near overwhelming disappointment with myself make me wince. Recollections of these failings appear on the projector screen of my memories from time to time, and I am smitten by guilt. How could I have ever been in the frame of mind and heart where I thought that a particular behavior or conversation was acceptable? Ignorance and inexperience factor in more than malice or hate, but still, the feelings of sorrow remain.
The thing about shame is that we don’t usually want to talk about it because, well, we are ashamed.
In his book God Has a Dream, Desmond Tutu speaks about the importance of articulating our stories, even the embarrassing parts. Without voicing our narratives, and the feelings associated with them, we remain somewhat alienated from our stories. For luminaries like Tutu, forgiveness, both for ourselves and others, is first rooted in the acknowledgment of a wrong.
And oh how I was wrong.
Years ago I was talking to a classmate about post-secondary plans. Sitting in the underfunded computer lab, we talked about options available, and she mentioned her application and plans for law school; she hoped her grades were high enough. Her depression medication made her a little sluggish, and it reflected in her marks. Earlier that afternoon I had overheard a conversation where a visible minority was having a difficult time choosing which school to attend because all had accepted her. She laughed that it was a wonderful problem to have, especially considering her GPA was much lower than requirements. A small perk of my status, she smiled, they had to accept me!
Feeling genuine sympathy for my friend’s problem, I replied, “if only you were a particular minority, getting in would be much easier.”
While she thought about it, I sing-song-like prattled on about rumors I had heard about funding and employment opportunities.
My friend didn’t say much.
Finally, we both returned to our assignments, and the room was quiet.
About an hour later a visibly provoked member of the minority I had been talking about approached abruptly and said she had heard our conversation and was enraged.
I was stunned. Worst of all, silent.
My friend tried to apologize, but the damage had been done. My lack of knowledge had set the tone of tribalism and an us versus them mentality. I had unwittingly paid homage to the border between us.
My friend sat there, staring straight ahead. She finally gently said, “have you never really thought about those things before – about why we have those policies?”
I felt ashamed.
It’s been many years since that conversation and it still troubles me.
Borders are so much easier to construct than bridges.
But bridges are possible; visionaries like Desmond Tutu make it their life mission to remind us of that. They remind us of our capacity for hate, oppression, and violence, but also for love, forgiveness, and hope. I am challenged by his assertion, “So often when people hear about the suffering in our world, they feel guilty, but rarely does guilt actually motivate action like empathy or compassion. Guilt paralyzes and causes us to deny and avoid what is making us feel guilty. The goal is to replace our guilt with generosity… We must each do what we can.”
His statement stings because it is true to my life experience. How often have I denied the validity of a person’s pain because acknowledging it makes me feel guilty for my position of silent complicity? But Tutu demands more than that of me, he compels me to use my feelings of guilt and do something constructive with them; to keep in mind his encouragement that “All of our humanity is dependent on recognizing the humanity in others.”
Tangibly fostering generosity feels like an impossible task sometimes, where do I even start? I ask people wiser than me how to turn my ignorance, my limited perspectives, and my biased opinions into something contributive to peace, and I am continually told, “we must each do what we can.”
And on good days, when my lethargy threatens to dull my conviction for bridge building, I remind myself of Ron Dart’s admonition, “An interest in spirituality that lacks a hunger and thirst for justice is merely an opiate, a diversion.”
And so I surround myself with demands on my vision for justice. I do not want my spirituality to be an opiate; I want it to be real and meaningful. I do not always know how to proceed. I do, however, remind myself of the consequences and damage my mindless comments caused to the girl in the computer lab that day. Of the sin of omission.
I recall the wisdom of this confession often heard in Anglican parishes,
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.
As I think about it, my prayer is to always be reminded of my limited perspectives, that there are crimes I commit both aware and unaware. But because of my loving God, I can ask for pardon and strength to turn my guilt into generosity.