Last week my kids and I spent the evening at our community pool. Leaving at 6:15 PM was late for them in a delicious, it's-summer sort of way. Happy chatter, the smell of chlorine, and the crunch of apples filled my giant Suburban as we made our way out of the gravelly parking lot and towards home.
As I rounded the corner, I started to pass a row or parked cars in order to get down the driveway to the main road. Suddenly, a small car started to reverse out of its parking spot in front of us. She and I were both going slowly, but I had the right of way and I also was too close to be kind and wave her back so she could exit in front of me. I stopped and waited for her to see my monstrosity of a car.
She didn't stop. She didn't see me. In fact, instead of stopping, she accelerated her car and didn't hear the blare of my horn cut through the evening as a warning to stop. To stop NOW. As my kids and I sat there, she backed up into us. When she hit us, our car rocked a little bit--just enough to stop my kids' conversation to ask what had happened. We were all so unhurt that it wasn't scary at all.
I got out, and a thin-legged, long-haired, sun-burned teenage girl got out of her car.
"Oh that was totally my fault!" she said.
"You bet it was!" I replied, too sarcastic for the situation, too sarcastic, I soon found out, for the delicate mood of the teenager at hand. By the time I had parked out of the way of other cars heading home, this poor girl had tears streaming down her face as she called her mom to see what she needed to do.
"I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" she repeated over and over to me and to her mother, whom she was calling to help her through her first fender bender. She shakily fumbled for her registration and insurance information or whatever it was that she was trying to find. "I'm so sorry! I just wasn't paying attention! Oh I'm so embarrassed!"
I gave her a hug and tried to explain that, in the big scheme of things, this was nothing. Nothing! It didn't matter at all, my car was fine, my kids were laughing about getting a new car; this was a nuisance, but not a big deal. Caroline was hard to console. She was just so very sorry, so very embarrassed, and so very sure that it was all her fault. It was, but I assured her that accidents happen. I got her information, patted her back one more time, suggested she walk around a little before she got back in the car, and then headed home myself.
Driving home, I couldn't stop thinking of Caroline and Caroline's reaction to this small bump of an accident. As my kids started their bedtime routine, I sent her a quick email about how making mistakes is part of life. Without making mistakes we can't learn and grow. When we make mistakes in our house, we say, "On to new mistakes!" because not repeating the same mistake is really the goal, not avoiding making mistakes altogether. When you really live, you make mistakes. And life is meant to really live.
I hoped Caroline wouldn't dwell on this all summer long. I hoped she could learn to let go of the embarrassment, guilt, shame of hitting my car. In short, I hoped she could forgive herself.
I began to see for Caroline the process of letting go very clearly: On day one, she would think about it constantly, berate herself a little for being so careless, cry some more about it, apologize to her mother a few more times, send me one more email. The next day, she'd think about it, but hopefully a little less. Maybe shed one fewer tear. No email to me that day. One week later, she might think about it whenever she drove her car, get a wobbly chin at the memory, but be able to deep-breathe her way to calmness.
Seeing clearly someone else's path of letting go is helpful to me. I'm someone who has a difficult time believing that letting go is even possible. But maybe if I take the same approach I recommended (in my mind) to Caroline, I'll be closer, if only a few baby steps. Maybe if I realize that obsessing about my own mis-step slightly less than I did last year, learning all I can about myself from the situation, thinking about it just one fewer minute than I did yesterday…that's my own path towards letting go of the past and forgiving myself. Finally.