I was a lousy Army officer.
Truth be told, by skills and temperament I probably shouldn’t ever have been there. But I was there, too stubborn to quit, and for twelve years I strove to become good at a calling I was unsuited for, until finally I figured out I could make a different choice. So I left the Army, abandoned my duty, as I saw it, during wartime. Better to leave now in shame, I figured, than to stick around until my incompetence got somebody killed.
For years, I carried that shame, that judgment around with me. I saw it in the faces of everyone I met, especially veterans–every one of which I imagined must have served more honorably (or at least more competently) than I did.
It took me a long time to get over that. But time, and the patient love of my wife and family, and a program called Discovery!, and a lot of books, and speaking with and observing the way people actually spoke to me and what they actually wanted, led me to a conclusion I found startling:
Nobody really cares what I’ve been. They care much more what I am today, what I can do for them.
Oh, there are plenty of folks who would never miss a chance to condemn me. There are plenty of folks who will choose to hate me for that, or for having been in the Army in the first place, or for not being Christian enough, or for being too Christian, or for occasionally voting for Democrats, or for occasionally voting for Republicans, or for having red hair.
But I no longer feel the need to help them hate me.
You have something in your past people will hate you for. Maybe you made a mistake and somebody you loved got hurt. Maybe you broke someone’s heart. Maybe you had a baby. Maybe you lost a baby. Maybe you went to prison. Maybe you didn’t go over to your ex’s house that night, and you’ve been beating yourself up for fifteen years because maybe if you’d been there you could have stopped what happened.
If you have lived your life with everyday courage, it is a certainty that someone will find something to hate you for.
But you accomplish nothing by hating yourself.
Because what happened in the past is part of you, part of what makes you who you are–but it need not be all of who you are.
People care who you are today, not who you were ten years ago. They care what you can do for them today. They care whether you can love them with all their flaws today. Because they’ve all made mistakes, too. They’ve all–every one of them–done things they’re ashamed of, and most of them are beating themselves up over their mistakes just as hard as you are over yours.
So let your mistakes be part of you. Let them inform how you live today. But do not let them consume you today. Do not let them drive your choices today.
Today, find someone to help. Today, take pride in the work you accomplish. Today, be who you imagine you would be if not for your past.
It will be hard. Some people will turn away when they learn about that thing you’re ashamed of. Some will hold you tighter and share the things they’re ashamed of. And you’ll both wonder why you let it cripple you all this time.
But that’s all in the future. It will get here, but it’s not real yet.
Today is all that’s real. Today is all you have to work with. Live today. Love today.
Have the courage to be who you are, not who you were, not who you wish you were. Today.
That’s what needs to define you.