What I Did and Didn’t Do

There’s a line in a song I like that goes “I’ve grown so tired of grieving for what I did and what I did not do.” It’s been running through my head a lot lately and it feels like grief just saying it.

In some churches, there’s a prayer asking for forgiveness for sins of omission and sins of commission: “in your compassion forgive us our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone.”  Is to ask forgiveness the same as to grieve? Is there a time factor at work, so that perhaps grieving comes first, then asking for forgiveness, and then absence of grief as I feel absolved; or perhaps grief, a recognition of wrong or imbalance, is sometimes simultaneous with confession?; and likewise, if I don’t feel my grief, and/or don’t ask forgiveness, will I continue to grieve as an ongoing process, perhaps lodged in my body as much as my heart or mind?

I’m asking because I was reading the other day that some people think resentment — holding onto wrongs, attaching to them, perhaps even nursing them — causes cancer (Louise Hay for one, here for another; just google ‘cancer’ and ‘resentment’ and you’ll see). I don’t think I’d ever say that emotion or even attachment to emotion causes physical cancer, but I think that getting stuck emotionally probably contributes in some way to an overall lack of embodied well-being.

But then I thought that maybe grief, and in particular grief about one’s own actions — or perhaps it has more the quality of regret, shame, disappointment, remorse — might affect well-being as strongly as resentment. (And maybe they’re related, concurrent.)

Even if I don’t go over and over in my mind or heart some wrong I feel I’ve done, some good I feel I’m not doing, there is still a sense for me sometimes that I’m always being called to account for the moral right and wrong that I’ve done, and, even more, the right and wrong that I continue to do. How much of that underlying sense comes from the American/Puritan emphasis on individual responsibility, (Amercan) Christian teaching, the ‘punishment’ tendency of the current culture, my own genetic predisposition and upbringing, who knows. I know I’m not alone because I hear a lot of other people voice the same thing, though more often in talking about a sense of personal duty as necessary, meaningful, and fulfilling than in talking about how wearisome such a sense of duty feels.

The line from the song captures so well how it feels to me: the energy-drain, the resentment, the grief I feel about feeling that I have to be always grieving my imperfect actions. It’s oppressive, heavy, enervating.

I find some solace, strangely, in the prayer of confession, even as it directs my attention yet again to what I’m doing wrong. And I find solace in James Alison’s discussion of forgiveness. He calls it, in On Being Liked, “a process of undergoing ‘being undone’ from various traps, dead ends and ensnarlments,” and thus being able to participate in being (re)created. That’s how Buddhist meditation feels to me, too, a way of ‘being undone’ from ensnarement.

Alison says that faith is not about morality or about what we do: “It’s a receiving something. It’s someone having done something for us.” It’s being able to relax in the regard of someone coming towards us, someone who likes us, someone always offering us friendship.

I know the partyline on confession is that it can keep us from holding on to past sins of omission or commission, that it offers relief from the grief, but I’m after something else here. There’s something in the whole standard of good and bad, in the need to measure oneself against that standard, that seems counter to who I hope and even believe God is. (And as I write that, a flood of Bible passages come to mind to counter my hope. I have another hope, thanks to Girardians, that we’ve read a lot of that stuff inaccurately over these many years.)

I might phrase my ‘belief’ as “All have fallen short, and all are falling short, so why measure? Does it matter exactly how far short I am? And striving to improve my position vis a vis that standard by doing what I think are good acts — is there a point to that? Is faith really about morality? What if God just wants to give me something, just wants me to receive it lightly, not to grasp it but to let it undo me, and in being undone, to live life more fully, with all the passion, participation, presence, and risk that implies?”

Even that, curse my heritage, leaves me with a standard against which to measure myself, which is, to what extent is what I’m doing life-focused, to what extent death-focused? Am I acting in the flow or not? “Am I alive enough?” becomes just another way of asking myself “Am I good enough?”

Somehow, it’s the measuring that prompts the grief, and the weariness, and the dissonance, and yet everywhere around us, including in religious teachings and practice, there’s the encouragement and often the obligation to measure. I think there’s another way, another way to be alive without the measuring. In fact, I think the only way to be alive is sans measurement. I know it for sure when I am so involved, so ‘part of,’ that the present enlarges and I have no sense of time passing. That is the ‘flow’ that so many speak of (I first read about it in Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s book about it), where measuring falls away, is undone, and something that can compassionately accommodate both “what I did” and “what I did not do” is created, discovered, revealed.

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