How to Forgive Ourselves

With the High Holidays approaching, I’m trying to come to terms with a lot of my past life choices and mistakes. One recurring issue is that I live with a lot of guilt over some of my past choices. I’m not talking about sins per se, most of which I’ve put behind me, but some of the general directions I chose in life when I was younger. For example, I made some poor choices when I began my career which had terrible consequences after, and I feel I can’t forgive myself for my bad judgment. Because of some of these mistakes, I am years behind where I should be in life today and may never realize my true potential. Can you give me a healthy way of viewing this and hopefully a way to get beyond it? I really don’t want to go through life being bitter about myself.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for raising your important issue. It’s nice to see how much you’ve grown already, and I feel that with the proper perspective you will be able to fully and healthily outgrow your current negative feelings. (Needless to say, if your guilt reaches the point of self-hatred and debilitation – beyond what can be solved through an email correspondence, then you will want to seek professional help. Below I just want to share a few general thoughts with you.)

You wrote in your question that your main concern is not about the sins you used to commit in your youth, but your poor life choices. It’s understandable that we tend to feel less guilty about actions which are no longer a part of us today then we do about our life choices which still affect us. Regarding our sins, so long as we understand the critical distinction between regret and guilt, it is possible to healthily put them behind us and to move on. (We have several articles and videos on this important topic. See for example here and here.)

When it comes to the more consequential life choices we made in our past, Judaism has a very important principle which I think will help you come to terms with them. The Talmud writes that 40 days before a (male) embryo is formed, a Heavenly voice emanates saying “so-and-so’s daughter is for this one, such-and-such house is for this one, such-and-such field is for this one” (Sotah 2a). The meaning is that the very general contours of our lives are determined by God – such basic issues as whom we will marry, where we will live, and what our occupation (“field”) will be.

As a result of this, generally speaking, we do not need to feel guilty about our past life choices which we see in retrospect were not wise. If we were acting responsibly at the time and decided based on what was reasonable according to what we knew then, then we can comfortably assume God guided us in the proper direction for us. We ourselves may later feel those decisions were terrible mistakes which we wish we had never made, but we can rest assured that God knew these were the experiences we most needed in life – even if they seemed to have taken us away from the dreams we had for ourselves.

Of course, there is a limit to the above. If we made a choice which we should have known at the time was reckless and irresponsible, then we would have to see it as our own doing rather that God’s. If for example we married someone for all the wrong reasons, when everyone we looked to (or should have looked to) for guidance advised against the match, then that was clearly our own stupidity. We do have free will and we are capable of ruining our lives if we really wish. But for the most part, it is God who guides our lives – certainly in its most fundamental aspects – ensuring that our life experiences are the absolute best for our spiritual growth. Thus, rather than kicking ourselves how we could have been so stupid in our inexperienced youth, we should rather accept God’s will – and try our best to learn from those experiences He knew we would require to grow into the people we are today.

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