When I was twelve I wore blue jeans, yellow suspenders, and a maroon tie for my eighth grade picture. It was not a good look. So go most of our fashion choices in retrospect. If I thumb through old yearbooks I clearly see that I am not alone in my poor choices. Side spike hair-do’s, tight rolled pants, and far-flung bangs adorn every page. Every generation suffers the same mournful fate. We just made some choices back then that, when considered now, don’t look so good.
I wish it were just fashion choices we grow to regret. It is not. Other regrets possess further reaching consequences than our benign (though certainly cringeworthy) choices in apparel.
As the number of years we’ve already lived grows, so do the amount of regrettable moments in our past. Like a picture of us in a bad outfit, we can cringe at these memories. What’s worse, we know that many of them might still cause others to cringe, too.
As an elementary school student, I once asked a girl to be my girlfriend because a friend told me that I could have this cool ink pen if I did. I went through with the dare, got the pen, and broke up with the girl. She later heard about my motivation. Sure, we were young. It was a long time ago, but I shudder to think that in her formative years, that girl learned a lesson she never should’ve had to’ve learned — to me, her value was an ink pen with a digital clock built in.
I don’t think any of my peers remember me as a particularly cruel person, but I have memories of saying insensitive things that made people cry. Those hurtful words resonate throughout the decades and look much worse on me than the yellow suspenders did.
But like those hideous suspenders, I can’t take the hurt I caused others back. The cruelty I exacted, the feelings of rejection I (maybe even unknowingly) prompted — they’re as permanent as the photo in my yearbook.
What I’m talking about here is trauma. We’ve all experienced it — a death, a divorce, a demotion. But what we don’t often consider is the trauma we’ve caused. It’s hard to think about — that someone’s life might be worse because of you. Something you said hurt them deeply. Something you did scarred them for life. Objectifying a person as if they weren’t worth more than a pen with a clock can be dismissed as juvenile, thoughtless and inconsiderate. If only all of our mistakes and missteps were so innocent.
When you’re responsible for such pain in the life of others, what do you do? How do you square who you are today with who you once were or what you once did?
The truth is, most of our lives are filled with us trying to figure this out. This is not what we talk about at the coffee shop, of course, but it’s always happening under the surface. We bury these pains — those caused and those inflicted upon us — down deep inside. We mask that pain with alcohol or constant comfort or attempts to entertain. We distract ourselves with work or pleasure.
From time to time, we can’t hold it in. We rage at strangers on the road for the slightest infraction of traffic laws, and never stop to think this anger comes from someplace much deeper. Or, worse still — we hurt others because of the hurt we carry inside.
Hurting people hurt people, they say.
Regret, when left alone, usually compounds itself into more regret. We do well to recognize when things aren’t okay — and deal with them. Forgiving ourselves is some of the hardest work to do. It is much easier to pretend nothing has ever happened.
When my kids were small, they would disobey. They often did so because they were hungry, or frustrated, or tired. But they weren’t mature enough to say this, so they yelled at me or hit their sibling or threw something. While those offenses have consequences when our kids commit them, a wise parent recognizes that there is a context to the wrong behavior.
A wise person also does well to recognize that in our own lives, our pain and frustration – even our weariness — often leads us to yell and hit and throw our anger in the direction of others. While these actions also can have consequences, it is better for us to deal with the root causes of our tantrums than the symptoms. This internal work is certainly more fruitful than distracting ourselves altogether or pressing our own pain deeper inside ourselves.
Hurt people are the most likely to hurt other people. That’s true. But healed people can also help other people heal.
This is the work we should all be about.