Sunday, October 16, 2011

Angel on my Shoulder

By Lisabet Sarai

“What a lazy slacker you are, Lisabet! You haven't written a word on Quarantine for nearly a month!”

“No wonder your books don't sell. You barely put any effort into promotion.”

“You just walked right by that beggar. You've got so much more than he does – couldn't you spare a dollar?”

“You said you were going to cut back on drinking, but that didn't stop you from ordering two whiskies last night, did it?”

“You dreamed about him again. Aren't you ashamed? Here you're lying next to your devoted husband, and fantasizing about someone else.”

Remember those cartoons, where the character has a devil on one shoulder, urging him to act on his desires, and an angel on the other, exhorting him to be strong, moral and virtuous? Well, I've got one of those – an angel, I mean – and I have to say she's a bitch. I don't know what happened to her demonic counterpart. Maybe he figured I didn't need any help giving in into temptation. Perhaps the angel actually managed to drive him away. Hallelujah! Good triumphs over evil. Why don't I feel like celebrating?

From what I can tell, she doesn't plan on going anywhere soon. She seems to get her jollies making me feel as guilty as possible. Now I know I don't live up to her ideals – or even my own – but honestly, I do try. And what she doesn't seem to realize is that the guilt she stirs up actually hinders me from accomplishing more, following through on my resolutions, acting more thoughtfully and compassionately.

The more I obsess about my writing (or lack thereof), the more difficult it is for me to sit down and let the story flow. The task of getting my name out there begins to seem so insurmountable that I'm tempted to just give up. I look at all the misery in the world, the hunger, disasters, injustice, and feel as though my own modest resources can't possibly begin to make a dent.Why bother to even try?

It used to be much worse, though. When I was younger, guilt could literally paralyze me. I'd wake up in a panic, palpitations and all, about everything that I had to do and hadn't done. I'd sit there with a mind as blank as my screen (or paper, in the earlier days), unable to write a word. Now I have a strategy that helps quite a bit.

I forgive myself.

Seems like such a simple idea, doesn't it? I listen patiently to the litany of my shortcomings that my angel offers. I acknowledge that perhaps I could have done better. I remind myself (and her) that I am only human. I take responsibility for my failings, but I also note the many successes that my angel somehow never bothers to mention.

Self-forgiveness takes effort. It should be enough to just let go, to release the notion that I've fallen short and accept myself as I am. For some reason, though, I tend to cling to the guilt. Maybe it's a way of punishing myself. I should feel terrible, if I haven't measured up to the world's standards, or my own, right? If I'm serious about self-forgiveness, I have to deliberately put my sins out of my mind and remind myself of the truth. I am basically a good person. My intentions are for the most part pure. I'm doing the best that I can.

What helps most is to realize that all I really have is now. Of course, I want to learn from my mistakes, but they're already in the past. Dwelling on them will not change anything. I don't know what the future will bring, either. All I can do decide how I will think and act now, at this moment. That's where I focus my attention. I can choose industry over sloth, generosity over miserliness, compassion over selfish disinterest. Peace over pain.

It's easy to know when I've been successful in forgiving myself. Relief and comfort pour into my soul. I'm energized and hopeful, ready to apply myself to my goals once more. I'm not the religious sort, but indeed, I feel blessed. And, for a while, at least, my angel falls silent.

Perhaps she doesn't come from heaven at all.


  1. Great words! I read/listen to a lot of motivational writers/speakers, and you are right on the money. So many of us, particularly women, let guilt stop us from doing what we need and want to do. Another thing I've found, that annoying little naysayer 'guilt' is a relative of 'laziness'. If I don't forgive myself for doing something wrong and move on, I don't have to do anything and I have a good excuse. Self-forgiveness is beautiful, but you're right, not always so easy.

  2. Great post, Lisabet. I esp. like the last line. Actual people who imitate your "angel" by blaming you for a long list of sins also don't come from heaven. :)

  3. In part, I relate to this post so much I could have written it myself. The part that reaches beyond my experience, for the most part, is the expression of self-forgiveness—and in that way, I find this post inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing, Lisabet.

    I also love the last line, and great point, Jean.

  4. Lisabet - what does one say to follow this post?

  5. Self-forgiveness takes effort. It should be enough to just let go, to release the notion that I've fallen short and accept myself as I am. For some reason, though, I tend to cling to the guilt.

    It can be so hard to let go.

    Yes, your last line in the post sums it up beautifully. I would tend to think if there was such a thing as an angel on one's shoulder, it would talk about the positives that one embodies, rather than dwell on the negatives.

  6. Hi Lisabet!

    Ultimately we have to forgive ourselves first, even though its hard. In one of our dialogues about villains I mentioned that evil people never feel like they need to be forgiven because they refuse to believe they;re evil. Needing to forgive yourself and being able to is probably a good sign of spiritual health.


  7. Naomi,

    What a sharp observation - that guilt supports laziness! You're definitely right. Sometimes it takes less effort to just give up and say "I can't" or "Why bother?"

  8. Hello, Jean,

    It's funny. I sometimes think that all my self-accusations are an internalization of my mother's voice, but in fact she was never nearly as critical of me as I am of myself. I learned to have very high standards - perhaps unrealistically high - early in life, but I'm not sure from whom. I received lots of love and support as a child, as well as praise for my accomplishments... where did the guilt come from?

    Not heaven, that's for sure!

  9. Emerald,

    When I reread my post, it sounds like I have it all figured out, doesn't it? Don't believe it. Self-forgiveness is a constant struggle - one day at a time.

  10. Kathleen,

    Your post is a fine answer.

  11. Hello, Craig,

    I'm really not sure where this idea of nagging angels comes from. Seems to me that a true angel would embody compassion and thus, as you say, be gentle and supportive rather than critical.

  12. Garce,

    I am looking forward to reading what you personally have to say on this topic.

    And you're right about villains. They believe that their actions are completely justified.


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