Have you seen the trendy new poem-statement-manifesto that people are posting in their homes (and on Facebook and Pinterest)? You can buy them from all kinds of Etsy shops and online crafters, as signs or vinyl wall decorations. They are often referred to as “House Rules.”
I don’t have one in my house (it’s just not our style), but I’ve been thinking about getting a small one to give to my son. The list of “rules” places a heavy emphasis on grace, and I have been struggling to teach him what that means. He seems to understand the rules of behavior, but he does not yet grasp the rule of grace.
He’s generally a quite well-behaved child, and his infractions are minor. A lost temper that includes hitting his dad in the shoulder, a ball thrown in the house that knocks over my laptop, a careless interaction with a friend that caused hurt feelings. Every time, the same thing happens: he immediately recognizes his mistake, issues a hasty “I’m sorry,” and erupts into a catastrophic flow of tears. He knows he messed up, knows to apologize, but he doesn’t know how to make things right or let go of the guilt.
I feel his agony in these moments because I do the same thing to myself. An insensitive word from my mouth that embarrasses me and hurts someone else keeps me up at night for days, even though I have apologized profusely. An inappropriate lashing out at a colleague makes me want to hide in my office for the rest of the day, even after we have made peace. A broken commitment plagues me with guilt. I know how to apologize, but I don’t always know how to let go.
The burden I feel comes from my inability to make things right again. The truth is that “I’m sorry” doesn’t always fix things. It can’t. A simple apology cannot undo the breach of trust that breaks a relationship, or repair the shattered glass vase, or make the hurt go away when we have wounded someone. It’s an essential start, but it’s not enough. Sometimes, no matter to what lengths you are willing to go, there is nothing you can do to make amends.
It’s those circumstances that seem to send both my son and I into spasms of guilt. At that time, we are wholly dependent on the one we have wronged to proffer forgiveness.
Even if they do, it is difficult to accept that generosity, because we know there is nothing we can do to make it up to them. We are in their debt. Grace is like that—it comes to us as a gift, undeserved. In order to accept grace, we must accept that we have made mistakes that we cannot repair, and our relationship continues only by the sharing of grace.
In coaching my son through his moments of agony and guilt, I have reminded him of my own mistakes, and the times he has forgiven me. I tell him that we are a family, and that means that we all hurt one another’s feelings from time to time, but we love each other and so we keep trying to do better. I remind him that we are imperfect people, and we’re going to keep making mistakes, which is why we have to keep forgiving others and seeking forgiveness ourselves. Grace is tough to embrace, whether you’re in first grade or approaching your fortieth birthday.
I think that’s what I appreciate about that wall art poem. It’s a reminder that our mistakes are not the end of the world, but an ordinary part of living, loving and growing up. Grace, forgiveness, “I’m sorry,” and second chances are practices we engage every day, because we need them as much as we need food and water. We offer them when they are undeserved, because we know that we too will need them and be undeserving. Always, we are held in the everlasting grace of God, who forgives us endlessly and loves us relentlessly. Those are the rules of grace that I want him to learn, and they are every bit as important as the rules of behavior. I want him to walk through the rituals of giving and receiving apologies, forgiveness and grace as easily as he walks up the stairs.