Many years ago, back in my drinking days, a coworker and I had a spent a Friday evening celebrating the end of the work week by chattering mindlessly over too many cans of beer. Suddenly his mood grew dark and for some reason he told me a dark secret. One which he had carried uneasily for years and for some reason he chose that moment and me as the time and person for the "confession" of his secret.
It happened when he was a "stupid" teenager. He had been drinking and partying heavily and was out driving. On a dark street he came too close to a pedestrian he didn't see until it was too late. His vehicle struck a little old lady and sent her flying. In a panic he sped off. Almost in tears he told me of searching the newspapers and listening to the news the next day trying to hear if anyone had been reported injured or killed by a hit-and-run driver.
He never heard anything about his misdeed and he left town shortly thereafter, just in case. But he never forgot it, obviously. And it weighed heavily on his conscience even those many years later. He was a devout atheist who had no place to go for absolution.
I lost touch with him shortly after that, but that conversation and the power of that discussion stuck with me all these years.
On another occasion a good friend of mine, a Baptist preacher who had been a foreign missionary for many years until his health began to decline, was having a late night telephone conversation with me. I believe I was the one "confessing" that night originally. I was reflecting back on the end of my marriage to my high school sweetheart after eight and half years of commitment. I felt then and a quarter of a century of reflection hasn't changed my opinion that I bear the lion's share of blame for that. That's another story which I don't care to elaborate on. It still bothers me.
Then suddenly my preacher friend, in an effort to demonstrate that we all have done things uncharacteristic with our normal behavior, make mistakes, just plainly "screw up" from time to time, told me of a time when he was in his mission field making a pastoral call and inadvertently ran through a four-way stop street and into another car. In a panic he sped away. His guilt was still palpable years later and he confessed that he didn't know why he did it. Certainly it bothered him that that wasn't an example of how a "man of God" should behave. He had to block that out of his mind every time he stepped into the pulpit.
I could give many examples. I've heard many a confession. I've made many myself. More troubling to me is that I have dark secrets I would tell no one. There are things I have done and, more often, said, that I would give up limbs if I could undo or unsay them. Many of these were stupid, youthful indiscretions. Many more came from my penchant for cutting people with my words. I like to think and certainly have tried to improve on that character flaw. People who carry pain often inflict pain on others. It was never something I set out to do, but only in looking back did I see what I was doing and why.
A Church of Christ friend was once showing me a film strip that he used in his ministry of "bringing people to the Lord." One drawing in particular stuck in my mind all these years. The narrator on the accompanying recording was speaking about the weight of sin, and the picture was of a man attempting to walk while tethered to a ball and chain. And, oh, the size of that ball! It was huge, taller than he was. And the voice intoned that "many go through their lives trying to drag the weight of that chain." The message in the end was that Jesus died to "pay" for all our sins and that by accepting on faith his sacrifice we could "wipe clean the slate" with regard to our standing before God. We could break that chain.
I've noticed from many candid conversations with Christians that they, like I, still feel the weight of past shortcomings. It just appears to be common sense that even if it were possible to "square" things with God that way, the fruits of our misdeeds live on in the pain we have inflicted on others. If we have a conscience at all it is only natural that the pain we have caused others - whether it was intentional or not - still will bother us. Other times it just makes us feel bad to realize how low we have stooped or are capable of stooping.
This is one of my posts that has no proper terminus. I guess I can say that if past mistakes serve no other purpose, we can learn from them. If we don't like the way we were we can work to improve our behavior and seek to be something better. If we have wronged people, and if they are still alive, we can attempt to make amends as best we can.
But that ball and chain of guilt ... what to do about that? I have no answer. I suspect there is none. We have to deal with it. Some have ended their lives because of guilt. I think I can understand that, even though it's not something I think appropriate.
Dark secrets. Don't most of us have them? Don't most of us struggle with them from time to time, especially in our quieter, more reflective times? Could a god save us from this personal struggle, this personal hell?