Instead of Repenting


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
-From “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver[1]

Dear God and Universe, guides, and loved ones, what is your message for me today?  Thank you.

Your message for today is to love yourself in spite of all the flaws you see, some of which are real, and some of which are not.  The flaws that are real are most likely to disappear if you love yourself, not if you berate yourself as defective, awkward, and unworthy.  You are merely human, and generally you are trying your best to do what is right.  Sometimes you are actually trying too hard, rather than simply being, listening, absorbing the world around you, and radiating kindness and love—toward others, and toward yourself.  As you well know from experience, when you try too hard, you build up anxiety and sometimes resentment; you create tension so that eventually a reaction will come that is neither in your best interest nor in that of others.

Today you are tired because you did not sleep enough last night.  And you did not sleep enough because you did too much yesterday and so strained your body—and your mind as a result.  And yet you think that today you must be perfect, in spite of how you are feeling.  In Italian class just now, you did well to try to express yourself in Italian, both orally and in writing.  Your error is in focusing in shame on your mistakes, thinking, “I knew better.  Why did I make those stupid errors?  Next time I must be sure that I’m rested so that I can think clearly before each word I use.  The woman I was talking with must think I’m ignorant.  How can I have made that mistake . . . or that one?  I’m out of practice in speaking.”  And so on, and so on.  You didn’t hear the quieter voice saying, “That was fun.  I’m getting a little more relaxed,” and “Just keep talking, Winnie.  It’s coming back to you.”

The clunk on the head that you had earlier this morning when you stood up under the open dryer door was a message that you are continuing to try too hard, to tackle too much, to set overly harsh and demanding expectations for yourself.  Do not worry: that fairly minor clunk has not set you on the road to dementia.  But if you continue to strain your body and mind, your spirit and soul will go on suffering, as well, and you will continue to be incapable of serving as you would wish.

You do not have to be perfect.  You have merely thought perfection is a prerequisite for your acceptability in the world.  It is not.  But what if it has been in the eyes of some?  That situation would not make the expectation justified, or added perfection to God’s expectations or those of the souls who love you.  The purpose of life is to experience, to learn, and to grow in insight and in the expression of kindness and love, not to be without flaws and mistakes.  How can you develop if you have nothing to learn?  Why would you need to be here in this earthly garden of beauty, joy, sorrow, and sometimes-harsh opportunity for growth?

Your striving for perfection—and the approval you hope it will bring—has kept you burdened since you were in the second grade.  But you don’t need to continue to live under the weight of your self-issued commandment: “Thou shalt unceasingly seek perfection and approval.”  And if you continue to feel guilt and shame for all the problems you have caused and experienced, you will have missed the point and simply prolonged your misery: you will go on haranguing yourself for your supposed want of kindness, empathy, acceptability, and worth as a human being.  Yes, you could have been kinder and more understanding, but these deficiencies came from a lack of insight into yourself.  You did not recognize that you valued others’ judgments above your own, and so you sought reasons outside yourself for your unhappiness.  It is sad that you hurt your dear ones as a result.  But hurting them was not your goal; your goal was stopping the distress within yourself.  Your dearest ones now understand.  You must do the same and move forward, seeing your errors as lessons and not as indelible sins.

Notice that we did not simply say, “Move on,” which implies amnesia regarding what has come before.  Rather, we ask you to remember each lesson learned, keeping it in the forefront of your mind but letting the details of the schooling that taught the lesson sink into the river of life.  As you make your way downstream, give thanks to every droplet, every rock, all the torrents and storms, all the beauty, and the lovely tranquil pools and eddies.  And give thanks to yourself for your ability to love and learn and your desire to be kind and to serve, in spite of your human frailty and your flailing about from time to time in the rapids of your own creation.

Love and respect yourself and you will then better encourage, assist, and sustain others.


[1] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 110.  Hear Mary Oliver reading her poem “Wild Geese”:

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