A few years ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend who lived in a different area of the country. He left a message and, in a typical manner, I decided I would wait until a more convenient time to call him back. I reasoned that I was busy and would want to have space for a longer conversation anyway.
I eventually decided to return the call...about a month later. I grinned when I started playing the voicemail, anticipating the kind of caring, playful banter he was known for. But as the message began to play, a deep chasm began to open in my gut. One of his last remaining family members had died. One whom he had recently begun rebuilding a relationship with. I kept listening, the chasm deepening inside me. “I don’t really know what to think. My mind is kind of blank. I just want to talk. I hope you’ll call me back.”
I stared into space, the phone still planted on my ear. My first line of defense kicked into gear: “He had other people,” “He’ll be OK,” “He’s always so happy,” “I couldn’t have done anything anyway.” Then came the guilt and self-pity. But finally, I allowed myself to feel a burning sense of rightful shame: I had abandoned my friend.
I dialed his number and he picked up almost immediately. “Alex! It’s so good to hear from you!” He started telling me about his loss, how he had been feeling, and what he was doing in the midst of his grieving. He asked how I was doing and was curious and joyful about my life and work. After a time of conversation, I turned toward my dread and addressed what I had done: “You called me a long time ago and I never called you back. I don’t know how to apologize to you. You were having such a difficult experience and all you wanted to do was talk. I wasn’t there for you.”
He forgave me without hesitation, and his empathy was astonishing. He proceeded to describe all of the reasons why it was difficult for me to return calls. Work. Family. Distance. Everything he said was true. Yet, it didn’t matter, because I knew I had failed my friend. In this moment, I had a choice. I could hold on to my shame, or let it go. Did I deserve his unhesitating forgiveness? No. But when he forgave me, I could either accept or deny this gift.
The easiest choice is to hold fast to my shame, because I only have to worry about myself. It reinforces the thought that I am worthless, and therefore have no significance to others. But this ignores an important question: Do I trust my friend enough to accept his gift? This brings shame into a very different territory, because it means that holding on to shame dishonors the integrity of my friend.
By letting go of my shame, I was able to experience something utterly different. I felt hope and sadness. Not just about my failure, but that my friend had experienced such a devastating loss. I felt open to the experience of suffering, and hope that we could share it together.
Holding on to shame in the face of forgiveness creates a necessity for isolation and ego-centrism. It is a kind of self-punishment that brings relief in the form of payment for wrongdoings, but it cuts off the possibility of new life. Letting go does not make the wrongdoing non-existent. It brings about a new level of responsibility, as new space is created to consider what went wrong and how growth might be possible.
I have hope that I can sometimes face suffering without running away. Hope that I can let go of my fear and anxiety, just long enough to be present for the people that I love. And I am grateful for the light that my friend shines in the world. His gift will continue to guide me towards the kind of love that was so graciously shown to me.