Learning to Forgive Yourself: how our past shapes our future

I remember watching ‘Back To The Future’ as a kid thinking, “Oh, how I wish I had a flux capacitor!” If you have not seen this movie, stop reading this and go watch it (you’re welcome). If you have seen the movie, then you are aware of the dangers altering the timeline can bring. I joke, but seriously I turn 50 this month and some part of me wishes that I could just hop into a DeLorean and go back in time. Well, maybe not a DeLorean…a Mini Cooper, now that would be a cool time machine!

As I look back on that Ursala I see a clumsy, self righteous person who just knew the best way to do everything, at least that is what she thought. Never once did I consider that I had it wrong, or that there was another way to go about things. If I could, I might travel back to that time and give myself a good talking to. Or even a slap! Don’t worry, II would be careful not to run into my parents, I wouldn’t want my sister to vanish. (Another movie reference, seriously, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it!)

Adjusting the past

I guess the idea of going back into time is appealing to many of us. The ability to fix a wrong, make better decisions based on information from the future, maybe punch a bully in the face. These all sound good, of course I would never punch anyone in the face; but, there was that one boy who used to tease me. My recent reflections have me asking this question; “would it really be good to adjust my past?”

At the ripe old age of 49 I would have to say that it would not be a good idea for me to go back and adjust my past. As a matter of fact I believe that changing who I was in the past would make me a completely different person today. Maybe even a lesser or weaker version of myself. The truth I now know is that the mistakes I have made, and the brokenness I have experienced, are all a part of the shaping of who I have become.

From Conditioning to Transformation

The scripture that comes to mind to better communicate this idea is 1 Corinthians 13:11-13:
“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

I love this passage of scripture because if we carefully read it we can see the unique message Paul is trying to convey. Notice that Paul does not condemn the behavior of his younger self, he simply acknowledges the behavior he exhibited was the appropriate behavior of a child. As he developed and matured that behavior was no longer acceptable, and he put those childish behaviors away. The lesson that this scripture teaches us is that the survival skills that we developed in childhood were intelligent responses to the environments we were raised in as children. However, if we as adults continue to use those same methods we will not fully develop.

Carol Jung talks about this in his work. He reflects that the survival skills we learn in childhood are life-giving, but as adults those same methods choke the life out of us. To apply this concept to my own personal life I could say that in order to survive in her world little Ursala needed to be loud, and quick reacting, in order to feel safe, seen and secure. However, adult Ursala is safe, seen, and secure without those things. To fully grow and develop into the person I am called to be, God has me pay attention to listening and responding and not always reacting to the environment around me.

Changing the lens we view our past

I believe there are two ways to look back on our younger selves. The first is with regret, and the second is with forgiveness. I love the following quote from Maya Angelou, “You have to forgive yourself for not knowing the things you didn’t know before you learned them.” Forgiveness is the only way we can let go of the mistakes and hurts of our past. I’m not saying forgiveness is going to completely erase the past, but it will help us accept it. As we accept it, the wounds of our past will heal.

Allowing myself to notice all the errors of my life not only exercises the muscle of grace in me, but it also teaches me valuable lessons. Now I want to be perfectly clear, this is not a practice that I have fully mastered. I struggle daily with the image that I am projecting to the world around me. I so want to “get it right” the first time I fail…repeatedly. I am learning that failing is an important part of the journey.

Practice: Table Exercise- Forgiveness

My spiritual director once shared an enriching exercise with me. The first time I did this exercise I was not able to complete it, after several times I was finally ready. I would encourage you to practice this exercise if you feel like you are having a hard time forgiving yourself for mistakes you have made in the past.

Imagine yourself hosting a dinner. You sit at the head of a large dinner table and all the guests are you but at different ages of your life. Start at the earliest sense of “self” you have. For me that age was around 5 years old. After filling the first seat, fill the others with all the ages you can up till your current age. (This next part is hard, so get ready!) Go around the whole table to each age of yourself and say, “I forgive you.” Naturally it will be easy for you to say this to some versions of yourself, but others it will be more difficult. This is okay. Actually it’s perfectly normal. Skip the ones you can not forgive and go around the whole table. Repeat the exercise until you can say “I forgive you,” to all the versions of yourself.

Partnering with a Spiritual Director/Mentor

If you would like to take this exercise further, the next step would be saying: “I need you” to everyone at the table and finally the third step is to say “I love you” to everyone at the table. It might take you several times practicing this to move completely around the table, and that is okay. There is no right or wrong way to do this exercise. However, I will say that moving through it too quickly would cause me to question if you are truly being honest with yourself. It may help to find a mentor or an accountability partner, coach, or even a pastor to walk with you as you wrestle with it. I am a Spiritual Director and I have walked several people through this practice. If you would like to reach out to me I would love to talk with you more about this exercise and other exercises and spiritual practices to aid in your development with God. Many people are not sure if a spiritual director is a good fit for them. Equally many people don’t know what a spiritual director even is. What I like to say to both these inquiries is simply this: a spiritual director is a person who helps you notice the activity of God in your life. We are not extra holy, or particularly gifted, we just help you to notice what God might be saying or doing in an area of your life. You may have someone in your life that is filling this role, but if not reach out to me for more resources, (my contact info is below.)

Forgiveness converts to growth

We all have something we need to forgive ourselves for. Maybe it’s a bad decision, maybe it’s for trusting someone you shouldn’t have, or maybe it is for hurting someone you love. Regardless of what it is exactly, I would argue (and I believe Paul would too) that it is these very things that cause us to grow and mature into the fully developed person God has called us to become.

Even though my teenage self would LOVE to travel through time in a Mini Cooper. I have decided I will stay right here in my own timeline; knowing that erasing the mistakes of my past would also erase the best parts of me.


1 Comment
  • Angela
    Posted at 08:34h, 14 June Reply

    As a fellow Back to the Future fan, I really love this!! I have often thought about my past and if I would change the poor decisions and bad behaviour. It’s a difficult one. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and toxicity and started to live in the fullness of Jesus earlier, but at the same time, my life has ultimately led me to Jesus so through that lens, I wouldn’t change a thing! Thank you for this thought-provoking piece ❤️

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