Dear Older Self,
Just as you may be carrying burdens of bitterness, you may carry burdens of unresolved guilt for harm you have caused other people. As difficult as it is to face the harm that others have done to you, it can be even more difficult to face your own culpability.
I know that you know many stories about people who have made amends in the last stages of their lives. I think about the story you heard of an elderly woman who called an old friend from her hospital bed to make amends. She had cut off her friendship with this woman she was calling when the woman decided to take her children and leave her abusive husband. For whatever reason, the woman making amends had judged her friend for her decision and stopped talking to her. But, now, lying in the hospital, she felt the weight of her lack of compassion and kindness. Her call, admitting the harm she had caused, meant a great deal to her former friend. This simple but humble act brought healing and peace to them both.
You also knew an elderly parent who had been critical and abusive toward his children all their lives. Late in life his heart softened toward his children. He made contact with each of his children in order to acknowledge the harm he had done to them. He told them that they did not deserve to be treated like he had treated them. He told them each that he was proud of them and that he loved them. This man worried that it was too late for his amends to be of any value, but his words and his softened heart brought deep healing that made a significant difference in each of their lives.
You have also seen what can happen in people’s later years when this doesn’t happen. You know the story of a family matriarch who was controlling and verbally abusive all her days. At the end of her life her siblings and her own children were estranged from her. She refused to recognize her part in the problem and died without being reconciled to any of them. This was an unnecessary tragedy and it caused suffering for all involved. It left this woman’s family deeply wounded and it left her alone and bitter to the end of her days.
So, dear older self, please realize that facing the harm you have done and making amends for it can be extraordinarily healing both for you and for those you have harmed.
As you prayerfully ask for insight into harm that you have caused but that you have never acknowledged, it is important to ask for wisdom to distinguish between those things for which you are responsible and those things for which other people are responsible. Getting clarity about this is not always easy. On the one hand you may sometimes resist taking any responsibility at all for problems in your relationships. On the other hand sometimes you may feel like you are responsible for everything that is wrong with the world.
Refusing any responsibility when there was a part you played in causing harm only creates more harm. But taking on responsibility that is not yours confuses the situation for yourself and for others. For instance, if you tried to control a loved one who is an alcoholic or addict through shaming and lecturing, you are responsible for treating them disrespectfully. You are not, however, responsible for the addict’s or alcoholic’s abuse of substances.
In addition to praying for the wisdom to know what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for in a given situation, it is also important to separate out false guilt from true guilt.
False guilt is not really guilt. It is the anxiety you sometimes feel when we have not lived up to our own impossible expectations of yourself or when you have not lived up to someone else’s expectations.
True guilt, by contrast, is the distress you experience when you have in some way failed to treat another person with the respect and valuing they deserve as a fellow human being. True guilt is related to your failures to love others. It is about your failures to live in ways that honor our God-given dignity and the God-given dignity of others.
When you have identified ways in which you have harmed another person, it is important to open your heart to the pain you have caused the other person. You need to understand that this compassion for the other person is not the same as the experience of shame. Shame is focused on yourself. Shame is the experience of demeaning your value and worth because of your human failings. Shame can lead to self pity, which does not bring healing to the other person, to you or to your relationship.
The process of making amends, in contrast, is focused on the person you have harmed and on the harm that was done. In the process of making amends you open your heart to experience sorrow for the hurt you have caused and compassion for the per180 son you harmed. Shame will keep you both stuck. Compassion will move you forward into healing as you open your heart to the other person.
When you pray for insight into the ways in which you have harmed other people it is likely that some of what comes to mind will be times when you were also being harmed. Perhaps the person you harmed treated you poorly, or failed or disappointed you and you retaliated. You may be tempted to keep your focus on their part of the problem. But your work, dear older self, in moving toward honesty and humility and healing is to focus on your part of the problem.
It can be helpful when preparing to make amends to begin by prayerfully making a list of people you have harmed. Then, with wise counsel and prayer you can try to contact the people on your list (but only those who will not be further harmed by your contact.) These personal contacts are not to offer explanations for your behavior or to ask for forgiveness. The purpose of the contact is to acknowledge your part in causing harm and to offer the person you are contacting the opportunity to talk with you about the harm for which you are responsible. Your job will be to listen without reacting or becoming defensive.
Open your heart and mind to whatever your spirit and the Spirit are showing you about the harm you have caused. If there is harm that has been unaddressed and unhealed ask for the grace to open your heart in compassion toward those involved. Make a list of the people you have harmed. Seek wisdom in prayer and counsel about how to make amends. Do your part to give this gift of peace and reconciliation to others.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com