Sunday, February 18, 2018
Forgiveness, the fear of shame -- and compassion
In recent years in Lent I've spent some time struggling with forgiveness. At the start of Lent I set my mind to a more focused self-examination, this year watching for negative thoughts directed toward other people, and finding out why my mind turned that direction so I can trace the problem to the root. And fairly early on, I caught myself noticing that someone else in my team at work had gotten caught making a mistake; I was noticing with a level of gladness -- almost satisfaction -- that was just not right. And when I checked myself to see why I was glad that someone else was caught making a mistake, it turned out to be an obvious thing: I was glad it wasn't me.
Recently at work I've moved into a new group, using new tools and a different programming language than I'd worked in for some time, a new product framework -- and that's all part of the job. Almost any job requires of us that we continue to learn or even retrain ourselves in our spare time, especially in any computer-related field. But this time was different: instead of retraining all the staff together, they generally hired new people fresh out of school with knowledge of the particular language that they wanted, leaving those of us who had built the existing product to maintain it. Business-wise it makes some sense; career-wise there was a growing collection of us wondering if we'd just been sidelined. Slowly, they're coming to let more and more of us retrain for the new product.
So while I was retraining this time, besides the enjoyment of something fresh to learn, I also found myself pained by the learning curve -- or, honestly, pained by the embarrassment of being in a situation where I was inexperienced and prone to beginners' mistakes, far from the depth of expertise that I had in my prior work group. I'm still newest to the specific team where I work, but I've got a decent foundation now. So when someone who had been on that team a couple of years longer had made a mistake, I was glad that I've passed that stage in the learning curve where I'm the least competent. My gladness to see someone else make a mistake came from the horribly ungenerous thought, "I'm not the worst one in the group." It came from doubting that I belong, doubting that I'm welcome, doubting that others see me as worthy of being there.
The odd thing was that I recognized the thought, a variation of "I'm not the worst one here." I wonder how often a critical thought has crossed my mind about another person for the exact reason that I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm not the worst one there. In different situations it will be different, but I seem to be looking for proof that I'm not the most socially awkward, or not the worst-dressed, or any other area where I carry a lot of self-doubt. In my mind, I was thinking of shame like that old children's game "hot potato": if I could find someone else to hand it to, I get off free.
I'm trying to take this awareness and build compassion for whoever is caught holding the hot potato. We've all been there.