In these past weeks, the Canadian populace is coming to terms with the reality of thousands of unmarked graves on the grounds of residential schools in Canada. It is no secret that in addition to the appalling abuse suffered by children in these schools, the bodies of the children who died were rarely returned to their parents. Of the four churches involved in the residential school program, three have apologized; one has not. Much ink has been spilled about why this one church has not apologized or paid restitution. There are structures and generations-old ways of thinking that constrains this church from righting the wrongs with which it was involved. But I suspect that there is more too. It is that which is more that interests me here because in this there is something which is true for all of us, and with which all of us must wrestle: In so much of life, we fear being responsible for the pain we have caused – whether intentionally or unintentionally, or for the pain that was caused in our name or for our benefit.
To see these fears from another perspective, let me offer two further examples: Several years ago, a long-lost friend contacted me to talk about her young adult daughter’s struggle with mental illness. The conversation was deep and meaningful. With time, it became clear that one of my friend’s pressing questions was whether it was her fault that her daughter was struggling with mental illness. My friend kept reiterating how important it was for her not to be guilty of causing her daughter’s struggle. Toward the end of our conversation, in hushed tones, my friend acknowledged that certain parenting choices that she had made had found their expression in her daughter’s mental illness. The energy in the room was now especially heavy. Are we responsible for pain we did not intend?
A few years after my conversation with my friend, the CEO of a company called to debrief recent struggles in his company. His senior team was fighting. Despite his best efforts, the CEO could not bring the team to a place where members of the team could work together well. At some point, the CEO acknowledged that his leadership style played a role in the infighting between team members. Despite this acknowledgement, in our phone call the CEO wanted to hear only one thing from me: That he was innocent.
Why do we resist taking responsibility for harm we have participated in creating – or harm that was done in our name or on our behalf? And if we can answer this question, then a second naturally follows: How do we take responsibility for this harm?
It appears that our fear of taking responsibility is correlated with our fear of vulnerability and a collective lack of self-worth: “If I am wrong or if I did wrong, am I still worthy?” This is a profound question. As human beings, we have a deep need to be worthy, to be valued, to belong and to have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Somehow, we have also developed an unhealthy mathematical equation in our minds. This equation seems to connect being wrong with unworthiness.
I would like to challenge the equation that correlates being wrong with unworthiness. In my experience, it appears that the opposite is true. In fact, it is only when we can acknowledge the harm we have caused or that has been caused in our name that worthiness becomes readily available to us. Why is this so? A fear of failure, or a fear of taking responsibility for the harms we have caused (or that were caused in our name) causes us to become divorced from ourselves. Even a cursory review of our life histories will reveal our errors of judgement, acts of harm, and participation in systems of injustice. It takes a feat of denial to resist the truth of our complicity in the harms around us. To engage in denial is also to negate the complex nature of our beings. It denies our connection to the cultures and systems in which we participate. It causes us to live a lie because deep in our beings every one of us knows that we are not as innocent as we wish we were. Yet we pretend and defend the masks we wear in the hopes that no one – least of all ourselves – will see the complicity that lies beneath our mask.
There is a strange isolation that comes with denying our complicity in wrong. To say that another’s pain has nothing to do with us, that it is the other’s fault if they felt harmed by an action we have taken, or that it is the responsibility of someone other than ourselves for the harms done in our name – all of these statements assume that the other is essentially not of value to us. It says that the wellbeing of our neighbour is not our responsibility. It says that we live like an isolated organism upon the face of this earth, our interactions with others reduced to mask-to-mask encounters. Over time, this worldview binds us in a prison of our own making.
A great learning through my life and career has been how much freedom – and worthiness – is available to us when we remove our masks. When we take responsibility for the pain we have caused or for our complicity in the pain that was caused in our name, we are able to come home to ourselves. Taking responsibility allows us to live freely, unburdened from the need to pretend. When this occurs, the energy that we once devoted to pretences now becomes available to us, allowing us to invest time in listening deeply – to learn more fully about the pain we have caused or were complicit in creating. Time becomes available too, allowing us to invest in healing the relationships we have broken and righting the wrongs of our communal past. In short, when we remove our masks, we give ourselves permission to be real, to be both broken and beautiful, and to participate in healing the harms around us.
For my friend, acknowledging her decisions that contributed to her daughter’s ill health would, ironically, free her from her guilt. After all, it is her fear of guilt that keeps her locked in guilt. It is only in acknowledging our guilt that we become free of it. Imagine if my friend could say to her daughter, “When I said and did these things, I hurt you.” It is possible that these words would help both mother and daughter to heal.
The CEO who called me knew he is complicit but did not want to lean into the meaning of this complicity. Instead, he longed to be declared innocent. Denial, however, limits our ability to change our leadership strategies. When we are bound by the illusion that there is nothing to change, it becomes difficult to open enough inner space to learn new strategies. Imagine if the CEO could say to himself and his colleagues, “My leadership style is not helping our team. I commit to learning new strategies that will help our team to thrive.” In my experience, words such as these generate more trust in leaders, not less. In other words, worthiness goes up not down when leaders acknowledge their vulnerability and their errors of judgement. (Of course, one can take responsibility for too much – but that is another post.)
What about our complicity in the harms imposed on Indigenous people in Canada? For those of us whose families immigrated to this country, how do we come to terms with the history of land seizures and abuse done in our name? There is freedom – for us and for our Indigenous neighbours – when we take responsibility not only for the harm done in our name in the past but also for the systemic harm that continues to be done in our name today. To say, “I, too, am grafted onto the tree of Settler history. I, too, have benefited from the lands that were taken,” allows us to also say, “And I commit to being part of a solution.”
The old adage says, “If one not free, none of us is free.” While the harm we have done may imprison our neighbours, the hard truth of this statement is that when we are in denial of the harms we have done, we, too, are not free. Owning are guilt releases us, allowing us to embrace our worthiness, to live and lead more responsibly, more freely, more joyfully – allowing us also to heal those relationships we have helped to break.