Self-forgiveness as a Pathway to Belonging

Oct 18, 2020

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

We speak often of being a welcoming congregation, open and affirming to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or religious beliefs. We have gone so far as to integrate our commitment to creating a sense of belonging for all people into our values, mission, and ends. One of our five values is authentic connection. The fourth of our seven ends is “Welcome people in all their diversity and create belonging for one another.”

People have asked me, “What does ‘authentic connection’ mean? Is there such a thing as inauthentic connection?”

“Well, yes,” I answer. “There is…such a thing as inauthentic connection.” Sometimes inauthentic connection happens when we don’t speak the truth, when, for instance, we say what is socially acceptable or what we believe others want to hear. Inauthentic connection also happens when we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, usually because we don’t know if it’s acceptable to talk about those things. This happens when we haven’t yet learned the norms, or rules, of a particular group, be it a family, an organization, or a congregation.  

Inauthentic connection also happens when we hide part, or parts, of ourselves. That’s what I am going to talk about this morning – how we all hide parts of ourselves, the parts we deem unacceptable, flawed, or unforgivable. Sometimes it’s appropriate and self-respecting for us to choose not to disclose certain things about ourselves. Those boundaries are important; however, that’s what I’m referring to.

I’m referring to the things we think we can’t share, because we are afraid of how others will respond. We try to protect ourselves by withholding those parts of who we are, thinking we are ensuring our belonging. In truth, when we hide parts of who we are out of shame or fear, we end up feeling excluded.

We know we aren’t sharing our whole selves, and we live with that dishonesty and fear, thinking:

What if others find out the truth?

What if they know what I’ve done?

Or who some other hurting person told me I was?

We hide to try to belong and, by so doing, actually keep ourselves from belonging. It is sad.

David Whyte writes, “To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence—and especially to sustain a life of belonging and to invite others into that… we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile.”[1]

Only when we learn how to bring our whole selves into relationships and community, will we be able to fully create a sense of belonging for others. To allow others to truly belong in their entirety, or with their authentic selves, we must first allow ourselves to truly belong, in our entirety, or authentic selves.

I’ve come to understand that we keep parts of ourselves hidden for two reasons: fear and pride. To know we belong is a human need. We all need that. It is scary to imagine being shunned, and it is devastating when it happens. Thus, we hide, trying to protect ourselves. We’ve been taught that perfection is the human ideal we should all strive for. And so we think that being accepted, worthy, or loveable means being flawless, all-knowing, and mistake-free. It’s no wonder we hide our flaws, confusion, and mistakes.

We hide these things from others and from ourselves. We do this in many ways. We numb ourselves to not feel regret or shame. We deny things about ourselves, even to ourselves. We project what we cannot accept about ourselves onto other people. Perhaps most harmful, we lash out when other people get too close, especially to those things we do not want to acknowledge. In short, we do whatever can to protect ourselves and keep those hidden parts hidden.

As a result, self-forgiveness is critical. When we don’t forgive ourselves, we live defended. When we live defended, we will sometimes be unkind. We have to forgive to experience belonging for ourselves and then to extend that to others, genuinely.

I know what I’m talking about. I know what it’s like to feel as though I don’t belong. I was the child living in an alcoholic home who didn’t tell anyone why I didn’t join clubs or stay after school to play sports. We lived in a rural area and busing was limited. I didn’t say that no one would be sober enough to pick me up. I just allowed myself to feel I didn’t belong. I didn’t know then how many other children were doing the same. I didn’t know I was not so different. We might have helped each other or at least known we were not alone.

I could tell many other stories, but I don’t need to. You have your own. We all do. It’s a sad truth about our society and culture that we are shamed, taught to appear flawless, and taught to hide.

What if it were different here? What if people could share their whole selves, when and if they were ready and wanted to? What if there was no shame in making mistakes or having tarnished pasts or being in pain? What if we allowed our whole selves to belong and, by so doing, allowed others to belong as well?

How do we do this? How do we draw the circle wide to include more of ourselves and more of others?

There are many paths; here’s one:

We start bringing more of ourselves into authentic connection, let us say here in this congregation, by being willing. We admit to ourselves that we, too, keep parts of ourselves hidden. We, too, have done things that we think are unforgiveable, just like everyone else. We, too, need forgiveness. Then, before going further, we get to know ourselves a bit better. Why have we hidden those things? What messages did we accept as true, that perhaps were not? I thought that being broken meant being less than. I now understand it means I’m human.

Then, as we’re ready, we can be curious about those parts of ourselves. What did those things we thought were so bad teach us? I am who I am because of what has happened in my life, the good and the hard. Maybe more so because of the hard.

Then, when we’re ready, we begin to be more open and we begin to share some of those things with people we trust. We learn in our sharing that others have experienced or done similar things, and we respect them, no less because of their missteps or challenges. In fact, we often respect them even more. And then we offer ourselves the same acceptance and respect. We forgive ourselves for being real. We need to have companions with us on this journey—friends, acquaintances, and sometimes professionals. As we allow others to be with us on our journey, we join them on theirs. We become more real, whole, and welcoming.

I’m not suggesting that you be martyrs, to push yourselves or to engage in thoughtless sharing. I’m suggesting instead that you consider that you, like me, are more alike than different in our brokenness as well as our divinity.

Hate Has No Port Here, for others or for us. It takes courageous action to rise to that commitment, but the gifts… the gifts are priceless. So much better than the perfect, glittering gold of façade.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Whyte, David, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, Many Rivers Press, 2015.

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