Mary Oliver: Contemporary Mystic, On Forgiving Yourself


“You do not have to be good. You do to have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” These words open Mary Oliver’s profound declaration about self-forgiveness, choosing your life, moving on and forward despite regret, sorrow, guilt, having done harm or simply not having done enough to do good.

What can this mean when my religious learning says I must repent? What can she mean?

I don’t doubt Mary Oliver’s spiritual ‘cred’. She knows something of pain and regret, and I’ll bet, repentance. But there’s that word, repenting, placed inside the context of “not having to” perform rituals of personal self-excoriation. Which is what would happen if I put knees to earth for miles: my skin would come off. The Latin word indicates “severe censure,” a psychological whipping and abrading of self. ( And while we mere mortals, with our awful urges for revenge, require that of ourselves and others all the time, it’s pretty clear God does not.

I am a mental self-excoriator. I do not forgive myself easily. That takes grace or chesed (a Jewish concept for loving and kind treatment). When I remind myself of my Catholic rootedness in grace as undeserved, like a gift, that washes me clean, I’m renewed and awed. Add to that my Jewish choice to take responsibility to co-participate with my Creator in God’s loving-kind redemption, and I’m lifting my self from the spiritual mud puddle and getting a face full of sunlight reflected off the nearby Rocky Mountains once again. I’m home free.

But I do feel better after a good repentance!  I’ve experienced healthy repentance that is not self-harming.  Repentance can be another process altogether. Like making a heartfelt apology, or making an amend, as it’s called in Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, Judaism calls for amends-making on the holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur, the day the soul is nearest the Source of its Holiness. But no self-abuse is called for, at all. Just, willingness, vulnerability, humility, hope, trust in all things held in divine care.

I believe Oliver is right: I do not have to walk on my knees for a hundred miles, bleeding. But it can be necessary to undergo suffering and pain, if that’s what gets an amend made. I can’t make some apologies without humiliation, even if I prefer simply to humble myself and tell you I am so sorry for what I did to you. 

 Being Good

I am convinced that I do not need to be good. In fact, time and again I see that I can’t simply elect to be good. I can’t suspend my judgments, woundedness, lack of trust. I would like to think I can simply choose to be good any old time. Ha! Mary Oliver knows this for sure. To choose to forgive myself, to choose to cherish the one precious life I have (I’m referencing another Oliver poem), I needn’t be whatever it is that my concept of good is. Most likely my concept of good is mixed up with notions of having to be perfect. I for sure can’t be perfect. To paraphrase Francis Bacon, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”  Perfect is lucky. Good enough is within my reach much of the time. Grace says I do not have to be good to be safe, that my human nature is safe with God. Judaism, in the concepts of the yetzer nov and yetzer h’ra, the urge for good and the urge for evil,  says I do good, I do bad, I keep aiming for the good, and that is the way of human nature, which God made just as it is. If I become conscious, if I mend the tear in the fabric of my life, if I make peace and try again, and again, it is good…enough.

post script: the value in choosing suffering: Recently an online article depicted a young man making pilgrimage on his knees, helped by his friends to finish the last miles. He elected to offer up his body in physical suffering as a prayer for his mother’s recovery and end of her physical suffering from cancer. His destination was a Marian shrine. (Mary, of course, is the human sign of surrendering personal autonomy for a greater good. Of accepting the natural suffering in life for the sake of having life at all.) LT

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