Like yesterday’s post, this post begins with a mistake — with something I mis-remembered.
When I woke up this morning, I knew I wanted to re-use this photo, which I took last week:
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those signs with Extra Added Stopping Power (flashing lights edition). I hadn’t, until my trip last week through space and time to sign my will.
After I woke up this morning, I knew I wanted to use that sign, again, in today’s post. And before I trudged downstairs to begin writing, I had many thoughts about what I wanted to tell you, including this:
During 1991, when I was in my late 30’s, and was in the middle of an upsetting law suit (which I had decided to pursue), I ran a stop sign and hit another car. The other car was driven by a mother, who was with her little girl.
To this day, I still have a vivid image of the mother, afterwards, standing outside her car, crying, her daughter standing next to her, frozen, and a bag of groceries spilling its contents into the street.
Today, the image of that accident is still there, in my mind, for me to look at.
Even though nobody was really hurt (physically), I wondered afterwards whether I would ever recover, and let go of my guilt. My mind kept telling me, “It was your fault.” “Being distracted and upset is NO excuse.” “The red of the tomatoes from the grocery bag could just as easily have been the blood from that little girl.””You are guilty. Period.”
I worked on that experience, in therapy, for a long time. And I remember also thinking this: if I had actually seriously hurt or killed either of those people, I would never be able to live with myself.
But why such a harsh sentence, for myself? I mean, my mistake was being distracted, momentarily. I’m usually a good, observant driver.
And, honestly, I still get distracted, these days, too. I’m not a perfect driver. I could still kill somebody, some day. That could definitely happen (to me, or anybody else, no matter how well we drive).
And I still wonder: Would I be able to go on, if something like that happened now?
In my work as a therapist, I talk to people, a lot, who feel guilt about something they’ve done. They often use words like “terrible” to describe the deed. Usually, whatever they did, they didn’t mean to. It was an accident. They were distracted. They were dealing with difficult emotions. They were, often, doing the best they could, at the time. But still, something awful happened, and they can ascribe the blame to themselves.
In therapy, we have very interesting conversations about those experiences. Here are some things I try to communicate, to those people:
You may feel different in profound ways, but you’re still the same person, with all your flawed and beautiful human qualities, as you were before this happened.
If this hadn’t happened, would you feel differently about yourself? Well, you are still you, only now having made a (terrible) mistake.
Why condemn yourself to a sentence of never-ending guilt, for something that you cannot undo?
I hope they hear — and take in — invitations to forgive themselves, whether they hear them from me, or somebody else.
I hope I take those in, too, because — just by living as long as I have — I have several memories of times when I was imperfect, made mistakes, and hurt somebody else.
So, what’s my unfinished business, for this post, right now? I told you, at the beginning, that I had made another mistake — related to my memory of that stop sign, above. You can see evidence of that mistake, in the title of this post.
I had (mis)remembered the part of the sign that says, “all way.” I thought it said, “full stop.” And I was all ready to say lots of things about the phrase “full stop,” including references to punctuation marks, among other things.
When I first realized that mistake this morning, I entered “full stop” into Google Images, because I wasn’t ready to let go of that (misremembered) phrase. And here’s what came up:
But here’s what I want to say about the phrase “full stop,” right now. I wish I had come to a full stop at that stop sign, so many years ago. But I didn’t.
Maybe, if a sign like the one I saw last week — with its flashing lights and a stop sign at every corner — had been at that intersection in 1991, all three of us — that mother, the little girl, and me — would have been okay. In other words, maybe the accident would not have occurred.
But it did. So the best I can do, in the moment, is hope that all three of us are okay, now.
Thanks to good-enough therapists, drivers, rememberers, healers, and forgivers, wherever they are. And extra special thanks — with flashing lights — to you, for reading today.
* I found this image here.
** I found this image here.
*** I found this image here.
**** I found this image here.
***** I found this image here.