Last summer, I let a 5-year-old boy get washed over a dam.
I'd thought there was something dangerous about where he was swimming, but I didn't say or do anything about it because no one else around seemed to be worried. Maybe I'm missing something, I thought. I didn't want to embarrass myself by asking a stupid question, or get involved where it wasn't my business, so I just looked on anxiously and did nothing.
Then, sure enough, the boy swam near where the water was rushing by my feet, and started getting pulled over. Reflexively, I reached down and grabbed him, but even then was unsure about what to do. The dam was only a few feet high. Maybe he knew something I didn't know. Who was I to get in the way of his free will? "Do you want to go over?" I asked him. And then, without even waiting for an answer, I let him go.
Miraculously, he didn't get hurt. But I'm pretty sure the event traumatized his mother, who was watching from the other side of the river. And it certainly traumatized me.
What had just happened? Had I just let my fear of embarrassment override my capacity to look out for my fellow human being?
Yes, that's exactly what happened. Hardly the superhero instinct that I hoped would come out under pressure.
I spent almost a whole year being so ashamed of myself that I never shared the full story with anyone.
I was afraid that if I told people the truth of what had happened, they would judge me for my horrible instincts, and no longer trust or respect me. Or, even worse, that they wouldn't listen to my pain. Stop being so hard on yourself. The kid was fine, right? Why not just move on? In either situation, I would be left feeling lonely, unloved and misunderstood.
I tried to push the incident out of my mind, but of course it kept popping up again. Finally, just last week, I was ready to give myself the same love and attention that I would have wanted to give anyone else.
Please, I thought, help me shift my perspective. Help me feel okay about this somehow. Help me experience peace.
I wrote out everything I could remember about what happened -- what I thought and felt and said and did, and all of the complex feelings and judgments that showed up afterward.
I felt the sadness of having failed to live up to my values, not out of malice but a simple lack of skill and self-confidence and awareness.
I noticed how much I wanted to justify my actions and pretend that I'd *known* I was doing the right thing, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I recognized how this same pattern has shown up in my life at other times -- when I've seen something that could be done, but stepped back and hid and waited for someone else to be the leader.
I felt a pull to commit to being different and better in the future, as well as fear that I will fail and make the same kind of mistake again.
I got in touch with how much I don't know. Would things actually have turned out better if I'd acted differently? How will the incident ultimately affect the life of the little boy, or his mom, or me? Will we ultimately be better off because of it? I just can't know.
All I can do at this point is open up to my hopes for the future:
May this experience make me more humble and compassionate. May it make me a better listener and witness to life. May it make me a more courageous leader. May any trauma that my actions caused be healed. May the little boy and his family be blessed. May I be blessed. May all three of us become the people we need to be. May we live with joy.
I knew that I had forgiven myself when I was able to feel love again, without having to hide from the truth.
No matter what kinds of mistakes you've made in your own life, I hope that you, too, can move forward in love.