One by one, we gathered in the mountains, robbed of cell service and internet access.
Our differences were easy to spot. Different ages, different professions, different races. We had the coffee drinkers and the tea drinkers. Those who worked with the elderly and those who worked with children. Women married for years, women in much newer marriages, women who were unmarried. There were friendships among the group, but there were strangers there as well.
We ate hummus and pizza and cheesecake. We laughed at the light that randomly turned on and off in the kitchen, suggesting that a poltergeist should have been mentioned one at least one Yelp review.
We were there to brainstorm ideas to empower the women of our home state, but we knew that first, we had to recognize our own strengths. We had to believe, or at least be on our way to believing, that we were women of worth, women of beauty, women of courage before we could help women see those qualities in themselves.
Wrapped in blankets and warm sweaters, warm beverages in hand, we began to tell our stories. Stories of being rejected, stories of abuse, stories of people pleasing. We talked about the ways we had failed ourselves and others, but also of the ways that we had experienced success and freedom. We listened, we cried, we laughed, and we thanked each other for our openness.
As the weekend came to a close and we were packing our cars to head back to civilization, one of the women stopped me to ask about something I had shared – the part of my story that I still struggle with the most. “How do I know I’ve repented?” She offered encouragement and acceptance.
A few days later, another woman texted me, asking me who I needed to prove that I had repented to, reminding me that she believed I have, and that others did as well.
Repentance is a tricky thing. I’ve been told that it’s a turning away from any particular sin. Repentance is why I threw away all of my Stephen King books, to prove that I was really serious about keeping my mind pure. Repentance is why I spent most of the early 2000’s listening exclusively to Christian worship music only, to prove that could turn away from secular music that might not feed my soul as well.
I think part of my issue is that repentance and forgiveness somehow feel divorced from one another. And to some degree they are. Someone doesn’t have to repent in order for me to forgive them. I can choose to let go of the hurt that has been done to me without any action on the part of the one who doled out the pain.
But if you’re the one who did the hurt, that starts to be murky. Did I really repent, or have I just been forgiven? I can accept that forgiveness has happened, but how do I prove that I’ve repented when I divorced my first husband and married the man with whom I had an affair?
I think again about my friend’s question: Who am I trying to convince that I’ve repented?
Maybe it’s the church, where I feel like I’m not living out the right kind of story. Maybe it’s to the exes, where I know there is still hurt over my actions. Maybe it’s to myself, because, like everyone, I can be my own harshest critic.
Then I think back to that cabin in the woods, and to the love that I felt there. I didn’t have to prove to them through some outward show that I had repented of the wrongs that I had done. I didn’t have to list off the actions I had taken that would substantiate claims that I was no longer the person that I had been. I said that I had repented and they accepted it, no proof necessary.
I’m not sure if that’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s frightening to take people at their word and to believe the best about them. It’s risky to trust when someone tells you that their past is truly in the past. Sometimes that gamble is strictly with yourself.
But I’m learning that as I accept that risk for myself, my need to prove my repentance to others is diminished. Instead, I’m able to believe my own worth, see my own beauty, and experience my own courage.
Photo: Robert Bejil