It was 2015 whilst working at a mental health outpatient clinic when I met Diana (a pseudonym) who was a minister in a church several townships over. It was such an honour and privilege to sit across from a respected elder and religious counsellor. I would be remiss if I failed to mention how inadequate I felt in sitting across from someone so many years my senior with such a wealth of wisdom about how to heal the wounds that arise from living as incarnate beings. It was in this moment that I wished I had embodied the arrogance stemming from the belief in the superiority of empirical sciences, so that I could wield it as a shield against my own shame.
Diana was compassionate when I shared that I doubted I had the experience to walk alongside her as she grappled with emotional dilemmas that brought her to psychotherapy. She graciously shared that authenticity coupled with a wholehearted desire to hold space with another provides the container for us to mobilize our own healing resources that are divinely seeded within each of us. A lesson I would not appreciate until our work ended.
For several sessions, I walked alongside her as she unfolded the myriad edges that framed the problems that brought her to our clinic. I asked questions that focused on helping her to expound on statements she made about meaning, purpose, and values. I did not think I was doing much because I thought I had to arrive at a beautifully choreographed interpretation that would bring all the pieces of her problems together in a cohesive whole that would illuminate the solution embedded in the bigger picture. Alas, Diana told me that the warm and inviting place I provided along with the boundless curiosity I brought to our sessions was more than enough.
In our last appointment, I asked for permission from Diana if we could use the last bit of her appointment, so I could draw on her expertise as a spiritual elder and counsellor. She graciously agreed. I asked Diana to help me understand how God decides on one’s destiny in the afterlife. I told her that I am not a Christian; nor do I believe in the notion of heaven or hell. However, my curious spirit and deep desire to understand the role of shame in the Christian faith compelled me to ask. Diana's response shook me whilst forever shifting how I understand forgiveness within Christianity and the wider world.
Diana prophetically stated “I do not believe God condemns anyone to hell. God is unconditional love. We do it to ourselves. God only asks of us to be honest about how we feel about our own lives and the lessons we have learned. If we harbour any guilt or shame lingering from a lifetime as incarnate beings, we are not likely to feel worthy of our own divinity. Thus, condemning ourselves.” I asked Diana about the role of forgiveness to which she responded, “forgiveness is about reclaiming our divinity by loving ourselves exactly as we are.” I wondered if God granted someone entrance to heaven whom had not forgiven themselves would they be tormented anyway by not seeing their deservingness.
I also realized that forgiveness is not only essential to those who follow the Christian faith, but to all of us. How many of us have been tormented by our past transgressions or mistakes only to miss out on feeling content in the here and now? How many of us cannot see our intrinsic worth or value because we do not believe it exists? How many of us do not believe others who tell us they love us or want us around because we are ashamed of who we are or the things we have done? When we are unable to forgive, or find compassion for ourselves, life can quite literally feel like hell on earth. Are heaven and hell only metaphors for existential or spiritual states relative to our capacity to love our shadows?
Here are a couple of practices from Dr. Rosenberg from his book entitled Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life:
Remember self-judgments, like all judgments, are tragic expressions of unmet needs.
Connect with the feelings and unmet needs stimulated by past actions we now forget.
Self-forgiveness can come from connecting with and honouring the need we were trying to meet when we took the action that we now regret.