When we accidentally hurt another person, three cherished beliefs are turned upside down. The first is the idea that we can control ourselves and our world. Of course we know we cannot control the forces of nature, how other people behave, or even our own cravings for chocolate, but most of us feel confident of our ability to carry through on our plans. We believe that trying hard more often than not leads to success. We feel in control of our day to day activities – we drive, cook, work, parent, and play with confidence. We don’t expect the stove to explode or the car to veer off the road.
The second belief threatened by unintended harm is the idea that we are good people. We mostly follow the law, pay our taxes, work hard, love our families, and help those in need. Most of us accept the responsibilities of citizenship, community, career, and family. We know we’re not perfect, but on balance we are more good than bad. When we hurt someone, even though we didn’t intend it, we may question this aspect of identity.
Third, involvement in a serious accident can undermines our sense of belonging to a community, friendship circle, or sometimes even a family. We wonder if our neighbors hold us responsible for something terrible, do not want to see us, or find us deserving of punishment. When we hurt people, even unintentionally, we worry that our family, friends, co-workers, or community will abandon us. Sometimes, they do.
Losing faith in these beliefs can be painful. Beyond our remorse about harming another, we feel frightened by and angry about the capriciousness of the world. We find ourselves in a spiritual or psychological crisis.
We do, however, have choices about how to respond to this situation. We can blame others for the hurt that occurred, or we can denigrate the severity of the damage we’ve caused. We can push our feelings away by keeping busy, putting on a good face for others, or telling ourselves that shit happens. In other words, we can circle our psychic wagons and hunker down. Another option is to surrender to fear and guilt, to cower before the uncontrollable forces of the world, cringe at the memory of our own destructiveness, and dedicate ourselves to suffering and self-punishment. (Sadly, that was my choice for many years.)
Or, we can get activated. We can take all our regret and bad feelings and channel them into growth, creativity, service, or social change. We honor those we hurt, and we honor ourselves by making choices that require courage and change.
We cannot undo the damage we have done. We cannot control how others respond. We can only control how we respond.