Maybe my favorite pilot of all time is the double feature of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (lovingly referred to as DS9 online). In the episode, Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is abducted by alien entities called The Prophets who don’t understand what he is. While explaining corporeal and linear existence (human’s ideas of space and time), he is repeatedly drawn back to the unbearable memory of the death of his wife and forced to relive the moment he must leave her body behind. He tries to show them other parts of himself to explain humanity, but each time he’s drawn back to Wolf 359.
He begs the Prophets to stop taking him to that moment only to be told he is the one directing the show. “You exist here,” the Prophet explains — he is the one who keeps bringing them back to that ship. Although time has moved forward, Sisko is living in that moment where his heart was ripped open. The Prophet, in finally grasping Sisko’s experience of grief outside of time, tells the crying commander, “It is not linear.”
I think about where I’m living in my own timeline often. Sure, my body is physically being pulled forward on this linear plane, but where is my existence, my essence residing? Pain, whether it is from loss or failure or disappointment, is not linear. It has a way of reaching out from the past and pulling us with full force to that moment where our self ruptured.
For so much of my twenties, I have lived in those moments where I let myself and others down. As someone who crafted her sense of self on the false ideals of perfection, any deviations from the original master plan are like anchors in my own timeline, drawing me back over and over.
The places where I’ve lived in my memory are as visceral as Commander Sisko’s. There was a town in Florida where I wandered in desparate depression, barefoot in my Sunday best down empty residential sidewalks, hoping something would scoop me off the face of the planet before simply laying down in a stranger’s yard. There is a night that robbed me of my sense of safety in the world. There is a moment in a front yard where a friendship ended because of my inability to control my anger. There’s an office I’ll never open again, a business that will never get launched behind its door. The list goes on. I have existed in those moments, incapable of changing them and punishing myself each time they play out before me.
Forgiving ourselves is the process of allowing ourselves to live fully in the present. Those moments are a part of me, but I no longer wish to exist in them. I have accepted responsibility for those mistakes. I have altered my course and my choices to keep from doing the harm again. Now, my complete presence is required to live out the lessons I gained from those failures. I will never be whole if I force parts of me to stay behind in never ending penance and vigil.
In relinquishing the hold those moments have on me, I’ve found happiness is closer to me than it used to be. The feel of the air on a dry day hits my skin and I am here, existing in this moment, to appreciate it fully. There is less tension between the unknowable future and my untangled past. In planting myself in the now, I have made room in my mind for more and for new. Those failures, that shame, they are things that have happened, but they are not me.
A grace of getting older is that you realize the inevitability of mistakes. They are not unique to you as a failed human being. You are not uniquely incapable of performing life. You learn to forgive others for their mistakes and in doing so begin to understand you deserve the same forgiveness. Life is filled with choices and you will not always make the right one.
A grace of being disabled is learning to deal with other people’s disappointment. In being honest about your reality, your needs and your limitations, you will hear disbelief in the voices of otherwise nice people, watch as they walk away. In so doing you get practice in understanding that other’s disappointment is not something you can keep for yourself. You start to realize their feelings about you are often arbitrary and often misinformed. You learn that forgiving yourself is something that happens separately from anyone else’s feelings about the situation at hand.
In a quiet, healing, meditative book I read recently I was struck by this passage:
Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable — which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. — Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I find peace in the idea that our struggle to live up to our own ideals is human. I find peace in the idea that we are building ourselves up one day at a time, a process as complex and intricate as building any civilization. I find peace in the idea that there are parts of our existence which will never be what we wish for ourselves in hindsight.
Perfection, with all of its promises, could not be further from the lived experience of messy humanity. Who you are is expansive enough to absorb the pain and mistakes in the process of becoming who you want to become. I am choosing to exist today in a moment where I am at peace with myself and the things I’ve done. I remember to gracefully tell myself the next time I am dragged backwards: It is not linear.