In a Dark Wood: Seeking Self-Forgiveness When We’ve Harmed Others

October 6, 2020 Updated: October 6, 2020

Let’s say you have committed some terrible wrong that brought great harm to family members or friends.

Your drug abuse costs you the love of your daughter. Your malicious gossip in the office leads to an attempted suicide by the target of your slander. You’ve had too much to drink and slam head-on into a van carrying a family, crippling two of them for life. You lie to a judge and jury for your friend and then see the young woman he assaulted as she stumbles weeping in disbelief from the courtroom following his acquittal. 

It’s one thing to forgive those who have harmed us. It’s quite another when we are the ones at fault, when our actions and words damage not only our reputations, but also erode or abolish the trust and love of those close to us.

How do we manage to forgive ourselves? 

Guilt and Consequences

Some among us never feel the need to seek such forgiveness. Narcissists, for example, blame others—their parents, spouses, friends, and employers—for their failings and immoral behavior. When John doesn’t get promoted, when his business goes belly up, when his wife leaves him, it’s always someone else’s fault. Blind to his own faults and wrongdoing, John always plays the victim card and never sees that he himself is to blame. 

As for the rest of us, however, when we hurt others, our ugly deeds or words leave us walloped with an avalanche of guilt. We may wear a smile for the world, but our hearts and minds are clouded by despair and sadness. 

We may also seek relief by asking for absolution from those we’ve harmed by our stupidity and moral misjudgments, and they may forgive us, but if the sin was grave, we have likely damaged that relationship beyond repair. Most of us know of families broken by misdeeds—the father and son who haven’t spoken for years, the daughter who refuses to see her mother because she felt abandoned as a child, an alcoholic dad who left his wife and children, never to return—or of friendships blown apart by lies or betrayals.

But even when forgiveness is forthcoming, those of us who committed a great wrong may still find it almost impossible to forgive ourselves. To paraphrase the first lines of Dante’s “The Inferno,” we went astray from the straight road and woke to find ourselves in a dark wood. In our case, that dark wood is our heart and soul. 

Walking Through Hell

In his recently released “Walking Through Hell: A Guide for Those Who Have Wounded Themselves And Lost Their Way,” Jack Durant writes:

“I have written ‘Walking Through Hell’ for those whose wounds were self-inflicted. The man who by his infidelity lost the love of his wife; the drunk fired from her job; the embezzler sitting in a prison cell, shunned by family and friends; the father whose children despise him for having abandoned their mother 20 years earlier; all those lost, stumbling souls who have committed some great wrong, intentionally or unintentionally: You are the ones for whom I write.

“Because I am one of you.”

Durant offers readers who have wounded themselves a number of techniques and practical ways to recalibrate their lives, to find their way back to the light, and to once again move forward on the good and righteous path. He recommends everything from the practice of stoicism to certain movies, from reading material to the importance of exercise and diet, from adapting certain tough mottos as guidons to just getting out of bed every morning.

Durant also recommends ways of seeking forgiveness—from others, yes, but also from ourselves. 

Ways of Escape

When battered with dishonor and shame brought on our own stupidity and moral failure, we make ourselves prisoners in cells constructed from the bricks and bars of our misdeeds. We wallow in guilt and despair, drag ourselves day after day burdened by the past, and collapse at night into a sleep that brings only temporary relief from our misery. 

But hope exists even in this dark place. Here are some remedies Durant and others have practiced while seeking the light of self-forgiveness. 

Accept responsibility for our transgressions. Taking charge of our lives is always important, but in this case, it’s vital. If we are to escape the permanent night in which we live, we must never deny our sins. When we do so, we chip away even more of our self-respect. “With enough courage,” says Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind,” “you can do without a reputation.” With our reputation destroyed, we must find the courage to live with what we did and do our best to make amends to those we have injured.

Let time do its work. “Time heals all wounds” is both an old adage and a cliché, but there is truth in these words. No matter how clouded the world may appear, today, tomorrow, and the days that follow will eventually undertake a renovation of our hearts and minds. We’ll never be the people we once were, and we can never undo what we have done, but patience and the passage of time can bring us to a place of peace.  

Aim to do good. Seek ways to improve your life and health, and especially look for ways to help others. The recovering alcoholic in AA, for example, doesn’t rest on his laurels, but instead puts himself at the disposal of those new to the program, offering to help them day or night in their battle against the bottle. By giving of ourselves to others, whether it’s as simple as treating friends and strangers as kindly as possible or working as a volunteer in a soup kitchen, we help ourselves. 

Find joy whenever and wherever possible. In that first cup of morning coffee, the sun rising over the mountains, a long-forgotten but favorite song heard on the radio, the endearing sight of that elderly man shuffling along the sidewalk with his Scottish terrier: when we look for such small delights and absorb them as we might sunshine on your face, we let them work their magic even for just a few moments. Here you’ll find medicine for your pain. 

The Gift

In “The Gift of Forgiveness: Inspiring Stories from Those Who Have Overcome the Unforgivable,” Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt writes of those who have suffered horrific wrongs done to them by others, Elizabeth Smart, for instance, who was kidnapped, held captive, and abused as a teenager, or Devon Martin, the inspirational preacher, and speaker who had long resented his alcoholic father.

All of the people interviewed by Pratt had found release from the prison cells of their past through the act of forgiveness. 

The same holds true for those of us who need to forgive ourselves. As Pratt tells her readers, “What I have come to learn is that real forgiveness is much more nuanced than what you learn in kindergarten on the playground. It’s not a single step; it’s not a simple ‘I’m sorry’; forgiveness involves honesty, courage, self-reflection, the ability to listen closely. It involves the desire to forgive, and maybe not forget. And most importantly, it involves a lot of love, over and over again. Practicing forgiveness is its own reward, a gift both for yourself and for the world.”

If you have shattered yourself by some great wrong you’ve committed, if you are feeling broken and beaten by what you have done or what you have failed to do, force yourself to get off your knees, stand up, and begin your journey out of the darkness. Do good, practice patience, and find joy when you can. 

And try to forgive those who have harmed you, including yourself.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.