A while back, Jerry Seinfeld created a little internet series called "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" -- a chance to improvise the chemistry of spontaneous moments with various actors and comedians from his world. The episode that grabbed my attention was his connection with Michael Richards, who played Kramer on "Seinfeld," the sitcom about nothing (by its own testimony). The Richards episode of "Comedians in Cars" is viewable here:
What struck me were Richards' reflections and regrets on that fateful night at the Comedy Club when he reacted to hecklers with some racist slurs. Someone recorded the exchange on a smartphone and posted it to the internet. Call it one of those "Mel Gibson moments" (more on him later) ... a meltdown that you can't just rewind or delete. It becomes part of your 'permanent record.'
Seinfeld's brief and unscripted exchange with Richards about that night, seven years past, comes back to me frequently. Here's the transcript of those moments:
Michael Richards: I think I’ve worked selfishly, not selflessly. It’s not about me; it’s about them.
Now that’s a lesson I learned seven years ago, when I blew it in the Comedy Club, lost my temper because someone interrupted my act and said some things that hurt me and I lashed out in anger. I should have been working selflessly that evening …
I busted up after that event seven years ago. It broke me down. It was a selfish response. I took it too personally and I should have just said, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right, I’m not funny. I think I’ll go home and work on my material and I’ll see you tomorrow night.” And split or something. Anything.
But you know, it was just one of those nights.
And thanks for stickin’ by me. You know? No, really.
Seinfeld: There was no issue with that.
Richards: Well, I mean, it meant a lot to me. You know?
Seinfeld: That’s nice.
Richards: But inside, it still kicks me around a bit.
Seinfeld: Well, that’s… Okay, well, that’s up to you.
Richards: That’s a big cup too.
Seinfeld: That’s up to you, to say, "I’ve been carrying this bag long enough. I’m going to put it down."To clarify, Seinfeld sounds colder in the transcript than in the actual video, but it was clear that these are two dear friends, with a high level of mutual trust and the ability to shoot straight with each other. It's not for me to psychologize the conversation or critique Jerry's advice or how Richards received it. Rather, the chat struck a nerve for me because we all carry bags of regret ... often for years and years.
Richards: Yeah … yeah.
This is especially true when we have hurt others -- especially those we love -- and even more so when the harm done is ongoing.
"You've been hugging the cactus long enough"
Now to Mel Gibson and his infamous drunken, racist rants ... Years of time and labor and love went into his epic film, 'The Passion of the Christ,' but mere moments of unjustified indiscretion leave a deeper Google footprint than those vivid scenes of Christ's scourging and crucifixion. When I type 'Mel Gibson' into the browser box, the suggested auto-fills are 1. movies, 2. net worth, 3. IMDB ... then 4. racist and 5. rant.
Mercifully, Robert Downey Jr. -- no stranger to the self-destruction of substance abuse -- appealed publicly for forgiveness on behalf of Gibson (click here to see it) and exhorted his friend, "You've been hugging the cactus long enough."
At what point can we say, "I've been carrying this bag long enough"? Is it fair to those we've hurt to say, "I'm going to put it down"? Is that just? Should we really just stop 'hugging the cactus' and move on?
This can lead to a double-bind: if we don't embrace the grace of God and the forgiveness revealed at the Cross, then we minimize the Gospel. We are in danger of denying the costly gift of Jesus' finished work. But if we say, "I'm forgiven, thank you very much" and live as though Jesus' blood has truly washed us clean, don't we risk minimizing the damage we've caused? Is it fair to be freed from guilt and shame when others still suffer for it?
Living your amends
Twelve-step recovery programs like AA have some very helpful suggestions on this front. I'm no spokesman for them, but as best I understand the 'Big Book,' here are some take-aways.
1. First, we have a loving God who cares for everyone -- both the offenders and the victims of every offence. God's care is not just a distant empathy from above the clouds, but a present and active care available to all. This care includes a path to forgiveness for the offender and healing for the victim.
2. Second, offenders often think that if they carry regret and live in the torment of self-loathing, this will somehow pay for their sins and protect them from future offences. Both of these beliefs are delusions. Those involved in recovery programs or who deal with domestic violence, for example, know that the offender's obsession with regret and self-loathing is ultimately selfish (self-obsessed). Far from preventing further harm, these toxic emotions actually drive us back into relapse and a recurring pattern of harm to self and others. Moreover, they do nothing of any value towards healing those we've harmed or the relationships that have been broken.
Thus, the 'bag' we need to put down is not the bag of responsibility for our actions or genuine repentance ... rather, in light of the Cross, we can let go of our self-absorbed shame and the ways we 'kick ourselves around.' We can leave that bag at the foot of the Cross and move on to real repentance. As the apostle Paul said, Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death" (2 Cor. 7:10).
3. Third, while we leave behind our pre-occupation with self-punishing regrets, the best recovery programs also call the addict (or 'sinner') to take responsibility for their actions, turn to God and "make amends" where possible. In 12-step groups, making amends includes identifying the exact nature of our wrongs and expressing our sorrow for what we have done. A good step-guide to making a thorough amends can be found here: http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Amends
IMPORTANT NOTE: Such amends don't demand forgiveness from those we've hurt ... this might only add unfairly to their burden. Nor is there an expectation that this will make everything okay -- for the victim or for the relationship. Moreover, amends don't put an expectation on the other to take responsibility for their own stuff ... amends are about cleaning up our own side of the street.
4. Finally, amends are not merely a one-time event after which we completely forget our past. We need to live our amends. Expressing or making amends to someone may or may not change anything for them, no matter how badly we wish it. Amends may not heal the harm, no matter how strongly we regret our actions. But rather than wallowing in selfish remorse, we resolve by the grace of God to live differently. In effect, we say, "I can't change what happened ... but by God's grace, I can be changed and I will change." And we pray for that same grace -- God's healing mercy -- to visit and heal the harms we've done in ways that we cannot.
For those who continue to be haunted by old guild or preoccupied with ongoing shame, we may choose to follow the ancient way of praying Psalm 51 and 103 -- daily if necessary -- as a way to posture ourselves at the foot of the Cross for God's ever-available mercy. And we can pray for that same healing mercy upon those who've suffered because of us.
The Lord is Gracious and Compassionate
Putting the bag down is not always easy ... it's not a matter of religious striving or the willpower to let go. After doing our due diligence, at the end of the day, God alone can wash away guilt and deliver us from shame. Grace is his deal, a Power greater than ourselves, doing for us what we could never do ourselves. We can only surrender to this grace. One way to think of this is found in the phrase I used earlier: we posture ourselves.
I need fairly frequent therapy in this regard. One of the best treatments is to lay down or go for a drive and let Graham Ord sing to me. His Davidic psalm, 'The Lord is Gracious and Compassionate,' has been balm to my soul. As I move into genuine repentance -- the posture of receptivity to the mercies of God -- those timeless lyrics and chords flood over me ... something dark washes out when the tears come. To those needing a bit of that mercy today, I'll leave you with my friend Graham:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate Slow to anger and rich in love The Lord is gracious and compassionate Slow to anger and rich in love The Lord is good to all And He has compassion On all that He has made
As far as the east is from the west That's how far He has removed Our transgressions from us As far as the east is from the west That's how far He has removed Our transgressions from us
Praise the Lord, oh my soul, praise the Lord Praise the Lord, oh my soul, praise the Lord