It's harder to show mercy to ourselves than to others, but each of us is worthy of forgiveness.
St. Francis de Sales says, “Be patient with all things, but most of all with yourself.”
His advice is shockingly difficult to follow. My past mistakes replay like bad movies in my mind. I rewind and watch again and again. I chastise myself and wonder how I could have been so careless, stupid, and selfish. Even decades later, old memories make my face flush. It’s very hard to move on. I dwell on it and wallow in the misery.
This is a common problem. I know, because as a priest I hear a lot of confessions. I find myself offering constant assurance that God does, in fact, forgive. It’s okay to be more patient with our mistakes, to move on and stop dwelling on the past. I encourage them — sometimes even firmly instruct them — to stop talking about the same past sin again and again. Our faith assures us that God has forgotten all about it, so there’s no need to continue dwelling on it. Even on a human level, what we find mortifying and embarrassing other people rarely even notice. Or if they do, they forget all about it far more quickly.
In my experience, it’s easier to show mercy to others than to ourselves. I’m happy to show mercy to others, and I’m sure you are too. It’s a gesture of kindness and an act of friendship. It feels good to offer mercy. So why can’t I do the same for myself?
I think I know too much. There’s no hiding my motives from myself. I can’t pretend I’ve made an innocent mistake. There are actually times when I act out of malice. I’ve been hurt and want revenge. I want to put someone in their place. Other times, I’ve acted thoughtlessly and there’s no use in pretending my selfishness wasn’t a huge part of my motivation. Because my inner thoughts are laid bare, it feels like I need to pay some sort of penalty before moving on. I must make a penance and earn self-forgiveness. Anything less seems too easy. Mercy must be earned. True mercy, though, is never earned. It is given.
The need to reject mercy and somehow become worthy of forgiveness is a huge problem. Refusing to be merciful with myself is a form of pride. I forgive others easily but believe those same flaws in myself are unforgivable because I think I am better. Those mistakes are not for me to make, only others.
“The Chief Mourner of Marne,” is one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and in it Father Brown makes a point about the nature of mercy. He says, “You only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful …You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.” This is the difference between false mercy and true mercy. True mercy doesn’t limit itself to only forgiving crimes we think are understandable. It still works even if we don’t feel like we deserve it.
Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, show yourself mercy. Accept yourself — past and present mistakes included – and stop replaying that movie in your mind of all your worst moments. Instead, consider how you might show mercy to a friend. It comes easily and naturally. Now be your own best friend. Consider the comfort and advice you might give to someone else in a similar situation. Ask if you aren’t being too hard on yourself and if it isn’t time to move on. I know this can be difficult. For me it has meant leaving pride behind along with unrealistic expectations of personal perfection, but trust me, the trade is worth it.
Mercy must be everlasting. By definition, it’s gratuitous and undeserved. It doesn’t run out or grow weary. It’s the only way for us to move forward. It doesn’t mean justifying our mistakes. It means overcoming them.