Atone. Young man feeling regret.


“What is past is past, there is a future left to all men, who have the virtue to repent and the energy to atone.”

~ Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton


We all make mistakes. Some of us (probably most of us) have made some doozies in our day. Sometimes we may feel that there’s no way to recover—no way we can move on with our lives.

It’s true that bad stuff happens when we make mistakes; they can have serious consequences. They may result in people getting hurt or being otherwise impacted. When this happens, it can affect the way we feel about ourselves. We may feel guilty or ashamed. We’ve not only harmed the person or people that had to suffer the consequences of our mistakes, we’ve also harmed ourselves.

When we make mistakes, sometimes our knee-jerk reactions are more harmful than helpful. We may try to hide from what we’ve done. We may try to deny that it happened, deny that there were consequences, or deny our complicity. We not only are failing to own up to what we did and the consequences of that action (or inaction), we are also being dishonest. And that dishonesty can become part of who we are, and ultimately add on to our guilt and shame.

Even when we do own up to our mistakes, they can seem to us like evidence that we’re not worthwhile—that we’re somehow lacking. It can lead to guilt about what we did, but it can also lower our self-esteem. It’s hard when other people judge us, but it can be extremely painful when we judge ourselves harshly. When we’re mad at ourselves, ashamed of what we’ve done, or guilty about the consequences, it can be difficult to engage in our normal activities with other people, and even hard to be alone. What’s the best way to handle this? How can we start down the road to normalcy when we haven’t yet forgiven ourselves? What if we feel like we don’t deserve forgiveness?

If we feel there’s no positive way forward if we can’t “make things right” or completely fix the problem, it’s not only wrong—it’s harmful. We are damaging our self-esteem and our chance to expiate our mistake. So, what is the way forward? Atonement. Atoning for our mistakes can be hard for some people. Why? Because they tend to consider it in black-and-white terms—either I can fix my mistake or I can’t. In fact, atonement has a lot of gray areas. It’s not all gray, but there’s a lot.

Let’s start with what isn’t gray. When atoning for our mistakes, certain things are non-negotiable. First, you have to own up to the mistake. Getting past a mistake doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen or minimizing its significance. To atone for our mistake, we have to fully and completely accept the fact that it happened. We have to take responsibility for the mistake, and for its repercussions. Part of doing this is facing those who were hurt by our mistake, and being prepared to do everything we can to mitigate the consequences. At the very least, we have to say, to ourselves and to those who were harmed, “I made this mistake. I am responsible for the consequences.”

Doing this might not make things right—sometimes this isn’t possible. Some consequences of our mistake may be permanent. Some damage is irreversible. We may not be forgiven by those who we harmed. These are the parts of atonement that we have to live with. We can never reverse the mistake, but if we do everything we can—if we atone—we can contribute to the healing process. It will help us go down the road toward forgiving ourselves and moving on with our lives.

No matter what you have done wrong, you can always atone. It will take effort, energy, honesty, and courage, but it is always possible.

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