Two weeks ago I was walking by our New Books shelves and a title caught my eye. It's a thin book, small in stature with a mock-coffee cup stain on the cover...at least that's what I see. I've been involved in a lot of self-review, introspection if you will, for more than the last twelve months. Paul Wilkes captured my eye with his new book, the art of confession: renewing yourself through the practice of honesty.
I've returned to a semi-regular practice of confession. I carried some guilt of failure and anger in the past year. I can tell you that I wanted nothing to do with the burden, and I was able to find a light peace with myself. As an adult convert to Catholicism, I am never sure of my self when I enter the room to share my thoughts, my sins, and my failings with our priest. My examination of conscience is deeply pure and sometimes heart-wrenching, and when I speak the words, the lightness is unbelievable. In the introduction to his book, Wilkes describes the conscience as, "a mysterious force within that urges us toward good actions and away from the bad." He further explains our part, "Having a free will means we can choose to listen to this voice or not."
I hear the words form in my conscience every day, and I hear echoes of transgressions that I can't seem to let go, or that I choose to address by not listening to that voice that rings clear. In conversations with my confessor, we have talked about whether forgiveness, and thus confession to another, needs to happen face to face, or if it can happen through forgiving self and changing our response to the multitude of decisions we make freely each day between right and wrong. Of course, not all circumstances will benefit from the facing the individual we have wronged, and it is enough to encounter what is needed to make an inner change that will express itself externally. Confession should not be confused with apology. Certainly both recognize our regret, our sorrow, but confession, whether to self for the individual harmed, is an acknowledgement of what we have done wrong, and how we intend to change (pp.4-5).
At times, the wrong we do, the wrongs I have done, come from 'seeming' instead of 'being' who I am. Wilkes quotes philosopher Martin Buber in explaining the difference. While reading this book, I was watching the same expression through the character of Don Draper on the AMC series Mad Men. Draper is a man conflicted. His life is spent being Don Draper, Madison Avenue advertising agent. Without want to spoil things too much if you haven't seen the show, underneath the perfect exterior Draper seems to be, he is really happiest being someone else, someone he was born to be. The show through the fourth season has been a process of discovery of who he is, and learning to take the mask off. Confession allows us to do this, regardless of our faith or religious practice. We all seek and need confession.
Wilkes concludes that confession in any culture is comprised of Three Rs: Risk, Relief and Renewal (p. 97). Risk is the most difficult of the three; Relief and Renewal come easily after initiating the Risk of speaking the truth. It is much easier to continue to be who we seem we are. Why would we want to risk judgement of others, or worse, exposure to all. If we return to the difference between confession and apology, we can see that confession involves more of healing ourselves, and accepting what has been done by us, and planning for how we will go forward and 'sin no more.'
I've devoted a lot of time to examining my own conscience, and I admit I am not perfect. I used to strive for perfection and now I work to be who I am. Perfection focuses on seeming more than being. Being helps me to set a context for understand that others do not deserve my judgement and condemnation for their own being or seeming--only they know which is which. I have a much deeper awareness of what I do in response to my perceptions of others. I had an experience earlier this week and in retrospect I am happy with my response to the information I received. I've read two books on forgiveness in the past year. One by Reinhard Hirtler, and the other by Joyce Meyer. Both helped me to see the importance of forgiving the self before forgiving others. Both narrated the same point: Hurting people hurt people. I've always known that you don't understand others until you've walked a mile in their shoes. Until I worked my way through my own hurts in the past year (and believe me some hurts are still there as huge scars), I don't think I really conceived of the meaning of the shoe analogy. I no longer feel the need to walk in others shoes: I know what the pebbles do in my own to have a respect for the pain others feel with their own stones.