Special Days and commemorations have a sneaky way of reminding our brain where we were and what we were doing in any specific year. Specific dates are even more profound. November 22, 1962 is forever etched in many people’s mind as the day the universe changed. So is September 11, 2001. Specific dates and Holidays act as a bridge to our past and sometimes they revive emotions we have be trying to mask, forget, hide or fade into something that never happened. Often however the memories stay with us and affect our current lives to the point that we wish we could go back and undo what was done, simply because living with the guilt is a burden of magnitude.
Every Labor Day, I remember a special counseling session I had in my office with a client named Tom (Not his real name) years ago. He had been coming to see me for about 9 months on a regular basis, but on this Labor Day he had to see me as soon as possible in my office. I reminded Tom that this was a Holiday and I had actually planned to attend a picnic, but there was tension in his voice, and he needed to see me “desperately”. Becoming a bit concerned, I agreed, and headed towards my office.
At first we talked about legitimate things (or so I thought) that seemed to bother him: the state of his marriage, trouble he was having with his kids, trouble he was having getting along with the administration of the school his children had been attending, and sometimes he had mentioned, problems with his anger. I thought each and all of these were legitimate things that bothered him, but a problem I had was noting his disenchantment at various times with his own problems, no matter what they were. Tom was not consistent. At some times one of these troubles had greatly bothered him, and at other points he just wanted to talk and “shoot the breeze” so to speak, not making any real counseling headway, at least in my mind, during that time. I attributed the changes to emotional temperament and whatever had affected him during the day.
Tom was a decent man, a good provider, and a good father to his kids. Anyone would enjoy sitting at the same table and having coffee with him as you would discuss the events of the day. You might even confide in him, seek a little advice, since he seems likable, and is a good, upstanding citizen. But suddenly I noticed a serious change in his voice inflection, and a light seemed to go on in my own head when he began to tell me a story about his past that I had never heard to this point.
It seems this story begins when Tom was 19 years old, and was dating Linda, a cute girl about to turn eighteen that same month, and they were together contemplating marriage. He was about to begin College and she was about to graduate from High School: It seemed like a perfect time to contemplate their future.
One day, on a bright sunny weekend in their noisy suburb, the couple was driving near a forest preserve, actually looking for a quiet place to be alone. It was about 11:30 AM. My own math calculations (which are often inaccurate) placed the story he was relating to me about thirty years ago. It seems this young girlfriend of his noticed a “Just married” sign on the car about two cars ahead. “Oh, hurry, let’s see if we can see the bride. Pull up closer.”
As Tom sped up the car, the two found that there were actually two cars, one with a young couple leading the married couple somewhere, linked together because they both had signs on the cars about the upcoming marriage. They surmised that the one car was leading the bride and groom to the church about to experience the blessed event. Tom continued to drive next to each car so his girlfriend, Linda, could gaze at both cars and visualize what might turn into their marriage day. Of course, Linda demonstrated romantic feelings and voiced them: “Oh, Tom, someday that could be us.”
When Tom felt they’d had enough highway romance, he started to pull ahead of the two cars and went back to looking for their private place in the forest. Linda continued to watch the cars as they passed ahead of both of them. Pulling into the right lane infront of both other vehicles, Tom suddenly saw a driveway to a forest road to the right. Not having expected the forest road, Tom made a quick and unexpected turn into the forest parking area, thinking more of the rendezvous he was about to have with Linda than the responsibility that comes with driving. He stepped on the brakes, making a sudden and totally unexpected turn, and just as he turned into the driveway, he heard a loud and harsh crash behind him, a sound he said he has never forgotten, and often hears it at the most unexpected times. At the time however, he continued to drive to under a tree in the beautiful and quiet park, wondering what the noise was.
As he parked, the two “wedding” cars limped into the same parking area, the car in front with a smashed trunk, and the bride’s car with a smashed front, barely moving on its own power, with smoke bellowing from under the hood. Fortunately no one seemed to be hurt. It dawned on Tom what had happened. He had pulled in front of both cars and than unexpectedly braked and made a quick turn that caused the two cars to smash into each other. Engulfed by the excitement of their wedding, both drivers were probably following each other too close and Tom’s sudden braking caused them to crash nto each other.
Both drivers stepped out of the car, still in shock. The women occupants of both cars remained in their respective destroyed cars, looking like zombies. At first Tom feared that maybe they had been hurt in the crash, but they slowly removed themselves from the broken vehicles and seemed to be physically all right, to which Tom breathed a great sigh of relief. Tom’s cohort remained silent.
It was obvious to Tom that both couples were very decent, as they stood by their broken vehicles, one of the cars still heavily smoking. Reluctant and feeling a bit guilty, Tom got out of the car and said, “Is everyone all right?” A thin, tall young man wearing a nice dark suit said, “Yeah, we’re okay. Just a little shook up.”
“I don’t know what to say,” Tom apologized. There was silence for a moment, and then the tall young man spoke again. “Well, you better wait here until the police arrives.”
Tom returned back to the driver’s seat of his untouched car, and sat for a minute in silence. Linda looked at him and said, “How is everything?” Tom remained silent. He looked at both broken cars and the two couples standing outside their cars, one in a beautiful bridal dress. They appeared emotionless, faceless, a bit zombie like, still trying to get over the shock of the accident. Without a word, Tom reached for the ignition, gunned the engine and rushed the car out of the forest and into heavy traffic, almost causing another accident. After he joined traffic he slowed down to the speed of the other cars, blending in with the speed of traffic. He saw the police car flashing its lights and sounding its sirens, going the other way, heading quickly to the forest driveway.
I broke the silence between us after I had heard the story: “So what happened after that?” He stayed silent for at least a long minute. “Nothing. Nothing ever happened. I never got a phone call, no mail, evidently no one had ever taken down my license plate, I saw nothing in the news: Nothing.” “Okay then why are we reliving this story now?” I asked. “I never forgot it.” Tom responded. “Sometimes the incident still haunts me. Linda left me shortly after that, nothing to do with the incident itself, she claimed. I was older than her in years, but she was already more mature than me, and knew more about life than I did. But when I least expect it, this memory comes out and haunts me like a jump-out from a horror picture. Suddenly I hear the crash, or I will be at my desk talking with a customer at work and I will find my mind trying to re-experience that incident. Or if I start to remember Linda, and until then, we had a pretty good relationship, I thought, suddenly I will remember that day and with guilt, relive that incident again. It happened to me this morning and that’s when I decided to call you.”
Guilt is not always an easy thing to deal with, and in this case obviously Tom’s problem. The weird thing about guilt is it is adjustable to the personality, and has a lot to do with the morals placed into the individual through his beliefs.Yet guilt plagues all of us, some more than others.
Some people steal without conscience; others cannot steal a pencil from the employer because of their moral aptitude. Obviously Tom’s problem was that he had guilt he could not get rid of, and it would plague him whenever he didn’t expect it, haunting him and affecting his actions and attitude. Guilt affects our actions, no matter what we think. In Tom’s case, he would get angry as a defense and not know why, wondering in the back of his mind if this was a problem he would never be able to solve.
And in a way he was right: He has no idea who these people were, and would have no idea how to get a hold of them. He cannot apologize, bring them restitution, and does not want to bring his action to the authorities and make his “crime,” if there was one, known. So he carries his guilt, and what it does to him affects other activities, the way he thinks, how he handles his relationships, and creates tension on the job that actually has nothing to do with his present responsibilities. Of course, what his confession to me does for him, is help to understand some of his unrelated activities concerning his own tension and stress.
We all live with guilt, which causes its own levels of stress and tension, and like Tom, we often share this guilt with no one, keeping our secrets inside of us, no matter how it affects the rest of our life. And many people, even our spouses and our parents, have no idea what causes us to act the way we do, which is unconfessed pain because we have never repealed or made justification for these inner problems.
Something all of us need to remember, especially before we judge Tom for his actions, is that we have all done things of which we are not proud. But some to these experiences, though unnecessary and caused by us, are parts of our passages into learning. Some of life’s education is doing wrong and feeling bad enough about it to change our activities to the better. There have been times when only the consequence of a wrong action teaches us the depth of the wrong we have committed. And sometimes, as in Tom’s case, we make a mistake that we will not be able to make right, and we will have to learn from it. And, indeed, sometimes the act will taunt us the rest of our life. There are two things we can do to try to right the guilt of our action:
1. WE CAN BE FORGIVEN RELIGIOUSLY (SPIRITUALLY).
Although best known in Christianity, most religions will accept our misgivings. Those of us who adhere to the Christian Message can go to their knees and confess their sin(s) to our God through Christ. “If we confess our sins, Christ is faithful and true to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Skeptics will criticize that this Christian method of forgiveness is a simple way to get rid of our guilt. They are right. Our philosophy is that God loves us so much, that no matter what we have done, when we return to our Heavenly Father, He welcomes and takes care of us. We are all made that way. Any father who has lost his children for any period of time and then has his children return, will understand that he doesn’t care what his children have done wrong, but is thrilled to have them back in the family.
So, the first place that I would take care of guilt would be internally, asking God for forgiveness and feeling like you have handled the spiritual problem, recognizing what you have done wrong and apologizing.
2. APPROACHING THOSE WE HAVE OFFENDED AND TRYING TO MAKE IT RIGHT.
As found in the Bible, getting right with God is not enough. You may take care of your eternal destination, but you still have to live on this earth. For this reason jail repentance is not enough to let a criminal out of jail. If you commit the crime, you may have to pay the time. Even if the offense is not law breaking, there are many activities that offend, hurt, and cause problems for other people. Just as we have an obligation to God, we also have an equal obligation to our fellow man, and it is possible to be forgiven by God and still have to answer to those people with whom we live on this earth. That’s why being right in your spirit does not always mean you are right with your fellow man, and although God may have forgiven you for stealing that ten dollars that was on your friend’s counter, there is still an obligation to return the money. This act has nothing to do with your salvation, but it certainly can help to build your character.
To deal with your own guilt, you need to approach those people you know you have offended and offer your apologies, and request what it would take to make things right. This is Tom’s problem: He can’t approach people he doesn’t know now, including who or where they are. He cannot apologize, or make things right, at least on this side of Heaven, and so he is stuck with some of his guilt. It is at this point that I saw some merit to the “Pay It Forward” movie. If you cannot find those that you have offended, you can take your obligation to help someone else who will benefit. It doesn’t erase the problem, but it does help.
I feel sorry for Tom having to carry that unresolved guilt, and I will continue to work with him, talking to him and being aware of this problem that he was finally willing to share with me. And Tom makes me aware of my own guilt, things I know I carry that I have done that I have never been able to resolve. We can be forgiven by God, but we cannot forget like He does, because we do not have the pure love for ourselves that He has. And as Tom leaves my office, I think about some of the things in my own life that cannot be resolved. I cannot fix them, some that have happened too long ago. But I can make this a good day, and in doing right to others during this day, I will make my life and this world a little better than it was before I arrived, or so I hope.
(Watch FOCUS ON JACKSONVILLE on COMCAST TV Channel 99 on Wednesdays at 5:30 pm hosted by Dr. Keith Johnson. See Dr. Johnson’s Videos at “YouTube/Keith Johnson” anytime.)