In the United States of America, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and many of us will gather with family and friends and over-indulge. I’m looking forward to it!
But, I also appreciate that family gatherings can trigger our inner land-mines of old wounds, grudges, resentments, jealousies, expectations, wishes, bad habits, rivalries, disagreements, attempts to control or persuade – you get the picture. In other words, tomorrow (and the fast-approaching Holidays) provide ample opportunity for re-experiencing old pain.
So – today I am offering what I hope will be a little gift for you.
No matter what has gone down in the past, how be if today you forgive yourself?
Forgive yourself for ~
- not being there when you were needed;
- kindness with-held;
- unkindness lavished;
- the affair;
- the divorce;
- the custody battle;
- the emotional cut off;
- any pain you knowingly or unknowingly caused.
You’ll be much better company, and enjoy yourself and your friends and relations so much more, if you’re not hauling about old suitcases full of guilt.
If you feel ready to do this, wonderful! You could scroll down this page to a gold subheading – Some Guidelines for Self-Forgiveness.
But if you notice a wave of self-revulsion, judgment and overwhelm at the sense that your crimes and misdemeanors are far too heavy and numerous to shake off in a day, I have a true story that might help give you some welcome perspective.
In 1989, a worn photograph of a young Vietnamese man and a little girl was placed at the Vietnam Memorial wall, along with the following letter:
For 22 years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only 18 years old that day that we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. Why you did not take my life I’ll never know … Forgive me for taking your life, I was reacting just the way I was trained … So many times over the years I’ve stared at your picture and your daughter. I suspect each time my heart and guts would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters of my own now. I perceive you as a brave soldier, defending his homeland. Above all else I can now respect the importance life held for you. I suppose that is why I am able to be here today. It is time for me to continue the life process and release the pain and guilt. Forgive me sir.
The letter was written by Richard Luttrell and he put the photo and letter at the base of The Wall hoping this act would alleviate his feelings of guilt and remorse.
It eventually worked, but not at all in the way he had expected.
His astonishing story aired May 25, 2008 on Dateline NBC. Excerpted below are some highlights, both in Luttrell’s own words (in red type) and Keith Morrison’s from Dateline, stringing the story along for us (in blue type).
Luttrell recalls, [the North Vietnamese man he shot that day] was the one moment, and the one act in combat that has been a burden for me for 33 something years.
It was 1967. Richard Luttrell, just barely old enough to sign up, was where he wanted to be — in the 101st airborne. He volunteered for Vietnam.
The day I got to my unit, the chopper came down in the jungle — and I saw the members of my platoon standing around . . my age… and these were some tough-looking guys. Just their eyes. And I can remember thinking, My God, what have I got myself into?
And then came the day that changed everything. It was hot, as always, like wearing a coat in a steam room, he had no idea his enemy was just a few feet away in the jungle.
Out of the corner of my right eye I see movement … I could see an NVA soldier leaning over with an AK 47, squatting.
First time you’d ever seen a North Vietnamese soldier?
Right, in my whole life, ever seen one. I had to react. I had to do something, it was my decision.
He was in the enemy’s gun sight. Death was a heartbeat away. He turned, and looked the enemy soldier full in the face.
It seemed like we stared at each other for a long time. And then, like it was all in slow motion, he pulled the trigger. And I just started firing, full automatic. And he went down. It turned into a pretty heavy firefight. And I wasn’t smart enough to hit the ground — and somebody tackled me, and took me to the ground.
Did you realize that particular North Vietnamese soldier could have killed you before you even saw him?
Absolutely, absolutely. And I’ve wondered even today – I go through my mind and I wonder why didn’t he fire?
After the firefight is over. After the adrenaline rush is over, and you’re all soaking wet, and you feel like your legs won’t hold you And it hits you — I just took a life.
I seen this picture sticking out, partially out. It looked like the face of a little girl with some long hair or something. And I pulled it out and it was real tiny. And it was a picture of a soldier and a little girl. I can remember holding the photo and actually squatting and getting close to the soldier and actually looking in his face and looking at the photo, and looking at his face.
It hit me really hard.
[Time passed, and eventually Luttrell had] . . . just 20 days left, when the bullet ripped into his back. The wound that sent him home. Rich came home to a case full of medals and married his hometown sweetheart, Carole. And as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, the ‘80s he tried to put Vietnam behind him. He really didn’t talk about Vietnam for years. It just was something he kept very personal, and very hidden. But all the while, there in his wallet, was that picture. The little girl who would not let him go. Of course, he didn’t know yet – how could he? What that little image had in store for him.
I really formed a bond, especially with the little girl in the photograph…Here’s a young daughter doesn’t have a father thanks to me.
Year after year, he kept it in his wallet. As the torment he felt failed to go away… as it settled on his life like a darkening cloud. And, 20 years after his return from Vietnam, when Rich and his wife Carole were on vacation, he saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and knew what he could do with that now tattered little photograph.
I said [to Carole] you know that picture? I’m going to leave it at the wall. And her face lit up. I could just see, this was something good. I sat down on the bed with just a scratch pad that was in the hotel room, I started thinking, I thought, if there was any way possible that you could talk to that soldier, what would you say, you know? And in like, just a couple of minutes, I scribbled out a little note.
In it, he said those few little things he’d always wanted to say. Not that he regretted being in that war… not that he regretted serving his country. No, he didn’t. It was instead that unending guilt, that uncontrollable sorrow, at having taken away a young father’s life.
The next day, Rich placed the photo and the letter at the foot of the memorial, under the names of 58,000 Americans who lost their lives in Vietnam.
And at that moment, it was like I had just finished a firefight and dropped my rucksack and got to rest. That load I was carrying was gone. It was gone. I just felt great. I felt free. Felt relieved, I felt free.
Or so he thought. Every day, hundreds of people say goodbye to bits and pieces of the war and leave them here along these granite walls and every single thing – sacred or profane – is collected and boxed up by park rangers. Including Rich’s photo. Which just happened to land at the top of one of those boxes, which just happened to land face up …which just happened to be seen by another Vietnam veteran who knew right away that this was something different.
Duery Felton is curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial collection. He has seen just about everything here. But a picture of an enemy soldier? And Duery said: “
I read that letter and it was about taking a life. It’s very difficult to do that. That decision has to be made in a matter of seconds. And you have to live with those decisions the rest of your life. So it was somewhat comforting, if that’s the proper term, to know that someone else has been through that, and they set it down on paper.
And before long the little photo and all the emotion it conjured up, infected this veteran, too. A tiny determined spirit floating from one old soldier to the next, reminding them both of the price they paid for pulling the trigger.
So when Duery Felton was asked to help produce a book, “Offerings At The Wall” he had a warehouse of objects and images from which to choose.
He put the little girl, and Rich’s letter, right there in the middle.
And of course Rich, who by now worked for Veterans Affairs, received a copy.
And I turned to page 53 and there was the picture of the picture I had left at the Wall, and the note I’d wrote to the soldier. For me, that moment was, it was almost a nightmare. It was like, you know, “Little girl, what do you want from me? You know, what do you want from me?”
Now the obsession returned full force. He knew he had to get the picture back. So he contacted Duery Felton, who’d become so attached to the photo himself he personally flew from Washington D.C. to Illinois to hand deliver it back to Rich. And anyone who didn’t understand might have found it rather strange that two middle aged men, who didn’t know each other, had never met, would hold on and weep real tears for a small girl neither knew.
And I was talking to my wife one evening and I said, “You know, I don’t know if it’s something mystic, or fate, but I said … somehow I have to return this picture.” And she said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “I’m gonna find that little girl, I’m gonna find that family of that soldier.”
So Rich called a newspaperman he knew in St. Louis, and the story made the front page of the Post Dispatch on Sunday. Then he folded up the article, and stuck it in a letter to the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington D.C, who told Luttrell he would forward it to Hanoi. And he said something to the effect of, “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
And in Hanoi an enterprising newspaper editor recognized a good story when he saw one, and published the photograph along with an appeal: “Does anyone know these people?”
It just so happened that a man in Hanoi decided to send his mother a care package. He happened to wrap that package in this newspaper, the one containing Rich’s photo.
And then, by some bizarre coincidence, probably, the package made its way to a rural village north of Hanoi, where an old woman unwrapped it, saw the photo, took it to a neighboring hamlet, and told a woman there, “Here, this is your father.”
And before long, thousands of miles away, Rich Luttrell received a letter.
The girl had a name: Lan.
She had children herself.
It just didn’t seem possible, it seemed surreal. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. And of course, all that emotion again, and you know, now it’s real.
The difference between guilt and regret? I do carry some guilt because of that action. But I have no regret as a soldier, and participation in that war. And it was important for me to make sure they understood that.
Around then, it finally dawned on him: he would have to go back to Vietnam himself. He would have to carry the photo and give it back.
But how could he face his own closet full of horrors… and how would he face the girl?
How do you tell a little girl, “Hi, my name’s Rich Luttrell, I killed your father in Vietnam.”
There’s a risk there. I don’t know how they’re going to react.
Decades after Rich Luttrell aimed his weapon at another human being, and pulled the trigger, in the service of his country, he was about to perform his own personal act of atonement.
The day before he is to meet the girl, now woman, in the photo, Rich is almost beyond nervous.
It is a cloudy Wednesday morning in Hanoi. Rain is threatening, as Rich boards a van for the two and a half hour drive to Lan’s village.
A drive through a world changing fast but still utterly different. Past markets crowded with faces amazed to see this entourage… this white-haired man.
The village draws closer in the van he fidgets, edgy…
And then, suddenly, Rich and Carole are walking. Here is where that somber, serious soldier lived, had his children, the place to which he never returned. And then, just around a stone wall, rich sees a woman. And is sure…
I’ve already seen her, I know who she is.
[He recites a sentence he has learned in Vietnamese . . . ]
“Today I return the photo of you and your father, which I have kept for 33 years. Please forgive me.”
This is the photo I took from your father’s wallet the day I shot and killed him and that I’m returning it. He died a brave man, a courageous warrior. I’m so sorry.
Finally, it all comes pouring out.
This terrible, painful release. As if right now at this moment she is finally able to give in to grief, and cry for the father she never really knew.
She clutches Rich as if he were her father himself, finally coming home from the war. Her brother tells us that both of them believe that their father’s spirit lives on in Rich. They expect we’ll think its just superstition and perhaps, they say, it is.
But for them, today is the day their father’s spirit has come back to them.
The whole village has turned out to see the photo returned.
In the company of former enemies, Rich Luttrell felt as if his wounded soul had been stitched up and made new again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Some Guidelines for Self-Forgiveness
1. Notice if something is still “alive” for you.
Just as Rich Luttrell felt haunted by the image of the little Vietnamese girl, are there situations in your past that still cause you some pain? Are there things you did, or did not do, that you still feel complicated about ? If you are not at peace with some aspect of your past – it might just be that you could benefit from doing the work to forgive yourself for whatever it was.
2. Pay attention to what you’re judging in yourself.
The reason most of us feel guilt or pain for things we did or didn’t do in the past is because we are no longer who we were. We’ve updated our values. We’ve honed our principles. So – noticing what upsets us now about who we used to be is a wonderful sign-post toward who we are now. So for you – what are you holding onto? Can you be specific about the judgments you have for how “mishandled” something in the past?
3. Realize you’re a different person now.
Whether the behaviors that pain you happened last week or half a century ago, you’re not that same person today. Everything we do is contextual. You reacted to the reality you saw at the time. Everything about that – how you interpreted your reality, the stories you told yourself about that reality, and the options you identified as responses – all of those were limited by the view of life you held then. Can you see that?
4. Recognize, release and reap the rewards of your past regrets.
It can be tempting to hold onto our past “mistakes” as justifications for why life in this present moment is not perfect. In truth, that’s a recipe for staying stuck. It’s far more invigorating to round up those bad-boys and release them. Take an inventory. What do you regret? The job not taken? The second date you skipped out on? That favor a friend asked of you that you chickened out on? Make that list – and soften into an understanding for who you were back then. See the “you” who did that as a person worthy of your understanding and compassion. Consider what you’ve learned about yourself and human nature since then.
5. Create an imaginary repair.
OK – so now you’ve remembered what you didn’t appreciate about the way you handled something in the past , what do you wish you’d done? Let yourself think through what you would have done differently if the person you are today, right now, was facing that same situation. You can either visualize how you’d handle the situation now, with the skills, understanding, compassion and big picture you have today. Or, you can visualize yourself as the adult you are now, and go back in time back in to help that younger version of yourself behave in a way s/he would have felt better about.
6. Be kind you yourself.
If you can do these first five things –
- Notice what still pings your conscience;
- Name how you are judging yourself for this issue;
- Appreciate who you were back then and why what you did made sense given the context, feelings, needs and skills you had then;
- Recognize, release and reap the rewards of your past regrets.
- And repair what you did in your imagination;
you may find yourself blossoming into a newer, kinder relationship with yourself.
I encourage you to give it a go. Those tight little knots of judgments about ourselves we hold onto takes energy. Letting them go will free you up to be more loving, attentive and compassionate toward those friends and relations you’ll be encountering these holidays.
With huge gratitude for
the abundance of opportunities for growth
that being alive and in relationship with our selves
and one another offers us each moment!
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FIRST TIME HERE?
This is the latest article in a year-long series on the “12-most-important-relationship-skills-no-one-ever-taught-me-in-school-but-I-sure-wish-they-had.”
Click the box for the full list. →
If you’re interested in reading this blog in sequence, below are links to the series to date, beginning with the first posting at the top.
SKILLS FOR UNDERSTANDING
SKILL ONE ~ Recognize (and get to know) the many “yous.”
SKILL TWO ~ Learn how to be pro-active: choose how y’all show up.
SKILL THREE ~ Accept (and get curious about) other peoples’ complexity
SKILLS FOR CONNECTING
SKILL FOUR ~ Master the Art of Conversation
SKILL FIVE ~ Learn How To Listen With Your Whole Self
SKILL SIX ~ Crack The Empathy Nut
SKILL SEVEN ~ Practice Kindness
SKILL EIGHT ~ Negotiate with a Win-Win Mentality
SKILLS FOR RE-CONNECTING
SKILL NINE ~ Build (or rebuild) trust.
SKILL TEN ~ Apologize & “Do Over” When You’ve Blown It
SKILL ELEVEN ~ Forgive and Move On When They’ve Blown It
SKILL TWELVE ~ Let go. Relationships end. You’ll learn, grow and cary on.
Coming in December