Q: In response to your question about breaking up (3/23/02): I understand the healing process when my heart is broken by another person. What about when I cause the separation that causes the break? Is it possible to ever heal from hurting someone? Can a person ever feel they have a right to gratitude in such a circumstance? — A., Los Angeles

A: Though you don’t give any details about this relationship, it’s clear that you feel deeply sad and regretful over the hurt you believe you caused. Broken relationships lead to grief even when both parties feel equally responsible, and the pain is more-or-less doubled when you blame yourself solely.

If we were talking in person, i’d want to step back and ask what makes you take so much of the blame, since relationships are two-way streets. But for the moment, let’s go with your original premise and consider only your part in the separation. Is it possible to heal from that?

I remember someone asking Corrie ten Boom, a concentration-camp survivor and author, how she managed to forgive. Ten Boom had in her hands embroidered fabric and showed the inquirer the tangled threads on the back, saying that this pattern was similar to the way we view our lives: a confusing, messy criss-cross of strands and knots. Then she turned the piece over to show the beautiful design as it was intended to appear, saying this was the divine view, from which her forgiveness flowed.

Indeed, we cannot know the full effects of our actions, which appear to us at times as one big mess. Our own perceived mistakes are just as hard to forgive as the mistakes of others. But that difficulty in no way makes you less worthy of forgiveness than anyone else. If there’s anything to be gained from this sad and difficult separation which you’re experiencing, it will come through understanding what you did and what led you to do it, and through reflecting on what you’d want to do differently if a similar situation arose again. From that understanding, forgiveness flows.

After this process of reflection, you cannot go back and change the past. You can, however, remember that you still belong to the human family, where we all struggle to love and sometimes seem to fall flat and yet still go on to try again, sometimes with miraculous breakthroughs. And if you come to know deep within how completely you belong, then you will also know how to treat others as fully belonging, which will lessen the chances of causing hurt in the future.

This sense of belonging lies at the heart of gratitude and cannot be earned. We can never be worthy of the wonder, inspiration, and love that pour into our lives moment by moment…even in moments of sadness, if we pause to look. When you offer yourself the opportunity to be grateful, you set in motion a cycle of acceptance — of yourself, your life, and all your relationships — that makes it possible to treat others with the kindness they deserve, precisely because you offer the same to yourself. That can only serve to further reconciliation, which you recognize, rightly, as a one of life’s greatest gifts.

— Patricia Campbell Carlson