Follow on

Over a decade ago, I did something about which I remain ashamed to this day:  I broke a promise to someone in a way that hurt her terribly.  I rationalized my decision by arguing that I hadn’t wanted to make the promise in the first place but had been pressured into it.  Many of the people in my life agreed at the time that for a variety of reasons my action was more than justified, framing the situation in different terms that made it seem more palatable. But ultimately I was unable to make peace with it.  I couldn’t escape the notion that to break a promise in order to meet self-serving ends (as was the case here) is rarely justifiable.

Yet break it I did.  In Buddhist terms, I was immersed in the world of Hunger, overwhelmed by my desire to gain something I wanted at the time more than anything (I don’t offer this as an excuse, but rather as an explanation).  Luckily for me, though, breaking my promise created such dissonance that I was bounced out of Hunger, came to recognize just how much my desire had taken me over, and in so doing, regained enough self-control to regret what I’d done and vow never to do it again.  (My apology came far too late, however; the relationship was destroyed.)

I lived with guilt over this for a long time, the apology I’d offered failing to free me fro it, finding myself at times caught in a painful loop of self-recrimination.  How, I wondered, could I be redeemed?


Whenever a news story breaks about someone committing a heinous crime, I wonder about the possibility of redemption and how we achieve it.  I wonder too if most of us don’t carry around a secret harm we once did someone, a harm that, if we allow ourselves to ruminate over, risks our losing faith in our own goodness and even the health of our self-esteem.  For anyone who remains haunted by a past act they regret or by which they feel permanently stained, I’d like to offer the following thoughts:

  1. Our intent is the most critical component of our actions.  Why did we do what we did?  Was it for self gain or because we were trying to do what we thought was right and either inadvertently or regretfully injured the person we were trying to help?  If the latter, we must embrace the fact that our intentions were good and that sometimes the most compassionate action looks, and even is, injurious on the surface (think of painful but necessary medical procedures).  We may find ourselves tripped up in our attempts to reach this perspective by the complexity of the context in which we acted, finding it sometimes hard to figure out exactly how pure-hearted our intentions were.  But if we can focus on those intentions rather than on their results (over which we rarely have complete control), we may learn we have nothing to regret at all.
  2. Human beings are inherently neither good nor evil but display equal capacity for both.  We often have as many impulses driving us to care for others as we do to harm them, and all of us have, at one time or another, done both.  To label anyone, even the most despicable of figures, as purely evil is to delude ourselves (something we do, perhaps, to explain how people can commit the atrocities of which history is chock full).  Certainly one could argue that in some people the capacity for good remains so deeply buried as to be nonexistent.  And many if not most evil-doers have died without ever redeeming themselves, making the redemption of such people a rarity.  Yet as I never know which of my patients who smoke will be among the rare 2% who actually follow my advice to stop, none of us know that the evil-doer alive in front of us today won’t at some point have an experience that brings home to him the horror of his actions.  Redemption, therefore, remains a possibility for us all.
  3. The path to redemption is difficult but not impossible to follow.  We must fully recognize that we’ve done wrong; fully accept responsibility for having done it; determine never to do it again; apologize to those we’ve done it to (if appropriate); and resolve to aim at improving ourselves in the general direction of good.  Interestingly, it was the last step, my conscious affirmation to become a person who would strive only to do good (even knowing I would at times fail), that enabled me to forgive myself and find redemption in my own eyes.

In Buddhism there exists an important principle known as “from today onward,” which essentially says that to dwell unduly on the past negates the idea that we can change and improve ourselves in the future.  We can’t escape the effects of our past causes, of course, but we can aim to be transformed by them in a way that strengthens the good in us.

Even in the act of standing against evil, a Buddha would recognize an evil-doer for what he truly is:  a profoundly misguided child.  For who but a child would think he could build his happiness on the misfortune of others?  Just as adults readily recognize immature and underdeveloped thought processes in children, so too does a Buddha recognize delusion as the root cause of the evil that people do, delusion about the true nature and dignity of life.  Which is why even in the act of condemning an evil act a Buddha continues to revere the life of the person who commits it, never forgetting that the shattering of delusion, no matter how deeply entrenched in a person’s life, is always possible—and with it, therefore, redemption.

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  • Why is an evil-doer “a profoundly misguided child?” “For who but a child would think he could build his happiness on the misfortune of others?” How about a truly evil person? Are you saying there are no evil people, just misguided people who are acting evil out of ignorance? I know that isn’t what this post is about, but that struck me as an assumption you make here without any explanation. Perhaps another post topic?

    Mike: I believe that originally everyone wants to be happy and that evil action arises out of beliefs about how to achieve it that are profoundly misguided. The choice to murder for money or gang turf or to avenge a perceived insult are all actions, for example, that can be traced, in my view, to deluded beliefs about what will bring happiness: wealth, status, power, etc.


  • If I am wrong, I always find ways to redeem myself. I feel and think that is the best thing to do. By saying I am sorry to that person will help ease both pains. Always admit if you are wrong and redemption is always possible.

  • Alex, thanks.

  • I don’t remember where this notion came from, but I have never made a promise for as long as I can remember. I do remember my children, when they were little, asking me to promise something to them, and I said no. When they expressed their disappointment, I said something to this effect: “A promise means you’re going to do it and nothing will stop you. But that can’t ever be true. There are always circumstances you can’t foresee that may arise to prevent you from keeping a promise. So the best I can tell you is this: I want to do what you ask, and care a lot about that. But I can’t promise. I don’t want to disappoint you. but I may have to. Please understand that.”

    As far as I could ever tell, they did. And when I did disappoint them sometimes, there was an ease and forgiveness about the event.

  • What you say about evil people seems to me quite correct. When people argue that “good intentions” excuse hurtful actions, I frequently mention Hitler. His intentions were of the very noblest: he wanted to save his people. Take a look at Mein Kampf to see what I’m saying. The fact that his intentions were driven by insane misperceptions of the world around him led to the immense evil he committed. Ignorance, stupidity, insanity: these are the sources of evil.

  • Love it. Thank you. Reminding me of the misguided child de-evilizes(?) the offender. It’s hard when people are repeatedly judgmental, swift and hurtful toward others for no gain other than to be seen as the righteous one. How do we deal with that? As a good friend said, “We’re in middle age… doesn’t this having to be ‘constantly right’ stuff get old?”

  • Wasn’t it Gandhi who said something like, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

    We need to constantly challenge ourselves to learn to forgive, to see every human as having the chance to make their own redemption. To eschew vengeance and retribution.

    This is how we elevate ourselves above the “human condition.”

    Thanks again, Alex, for a penetrating post.

  • This has been a huge problem to me, forgiving myself and looking forward, but it nearly took over my life because I was introduced to the ideas and expectations very young, before I was 7, and having a vivid imagination and being prone to think about things on more than surface level, I developed such a fear of doing something bad that I continually wondered if I had and just forgotten or maybe not atoned for, or how many times, had I got it wrong. It is something I can’t dwell on too much or it can suck me in yet again.

    As to the “true evil” person, I do believe they exist. While I don’t believe everything I read (thankfully) the evidence and history seems very convincing that psychopaths are what they are when they are born. Of course you won’t have a one-day-old child doing something really evil, but the potential is there, the lack of a conscience, the lack of any concept at all of morality; their world revolves around what pleases or satisfies them. And if in the process you get hurt, too bad. Or maybe your death might be the thing actually that pleases them. We’ve all heard of if never knowingly met the child who is discovered to be torturing animals.

    This person is very clever, he knows enough about what “the norm” is and outwardly he will try to use that to his benefit. After all, its much easier to catch a fly with honey. So these predators learn to manipulate and the whole time they are actually planning their next victim but they can appear very friendly and warm to us. No monster is going to choose a monster costume to wear knowing that it will chase everyone away. So he hides what he does and who he is. He also knows that he could be punished for his acts but he does them anyway but hides all evidence. Ted Bundy is a perfect example, IMO. He could be charming to the ladies, he pretended to be injured and when they offered to help him because of his fake injury they would allow their safety to be compromised. And I’m sure it didn’t take long after his car door was locked and they found themselves unable to open it that they saw his other side. Appearing charming one minute and coldly and brutally calculating and committing murder the next. But maybe they never go so far as to murder, there are people who contrive to take others money or property for their own.

    Imagine not having a conscience, never being troubled rightly or wrongly by your conscience because you had none. What would be the motive to do the right thing or where would such an idea ever come from anyway.

    Anne: You raise an excellent point that I left out, the true sociopath. We don’t know what leads to a person failing to develop a moral conscience, as these people seem to have failed to do. I suppose whether or not these people retain the capacity for good remains a genuine point of debate.


  • Molly: For most of us the only strength and pleasure left to us in getting old is exactly the righteousness you decry. All together now: “Kids today!”

  • “In Buddhism there exists an important principle known as ‘from today onward,’ which essentially says that to dwell unduly on the past negates the idea that we can change and improve ourselves in the future. We can’t escape the effects of our past causes, of course, but we can aim to be transformed by them in a way that strengthens the good in us.”

    Thank you for crystallizing this important point so aptly.

    Being mired in a life of self recrimination and regret is counter productive, wasteful and unhappy. So much better to be able to reflect on past errors and know that you have grown and learned from them into a better person.

    I’m enjoying your site and always learn from it. Thank you.

  • Alex says that we have equal capacity in our human condition to effect good and evil (Conrad, The Heart of Darkness). This keeps me humble. I am wary of slippery slopes that could lead me to slippage.

    Forgiveness as the most advanced form of love. Yes. Self-forgiveness should come first—the way you placed it in your blog post, Alex. I am eternally grateful that you supplied the Buddhist principle “from this day forward” to counter wallowing in guilt, torturing oneself about past foolishness, “indiscretions,” and lack-of-awareness errors.

    (Medical people have a particularly keen kind of vulnerability to making mistakes and then paying dearly, I believe. We expect them to make no mistakes—since the stakes always seem to be so high—health and life are at risk.)

    Yes, there are sociopaths, I believe. Where is their redemption, Alex? Is anyone ever again kind or forgiving towards a serial killer?

    Does anyone remember in the early 90’s, when we believed that the babies born to cocaine-using moms would never develop a moral conscience? If that prediction had come true, what would we have done with all those kids-growing-up? (I have worked in an NICU all these years, and I have sometimes held my breath, waiting to see what would happen to those cocaine-exposed preemies . . . I adopted one of them so it really has been “personal,” not theoretical. My adopted son does know right from wrong, although his other disabilities render him unable to reason according to his chronological age. I grapple with “correcting” him though . . . . . .)

    Finally, Alex, I like your steps toward redemption in #3.



  • Hi Alex,

    To be mature is to understand that promises made are sometimes broken.

    Of course there are different levels of promises (commitment) but by-in-large short of a vow or contract, one should approach a promise as an intent. An intent, if not given the proper support will sometimes not materialize. Therefore, in my opinion both the promisee and the promiser ought to work together to ensure the promise fulfilled.

  • Graycard: so interesting. I’m piqued by the irony that as children when we perseverate on a point, we are told to “Grow up and let it go!” And then as we age (and I hope, mellow), we are asked, “Aren’t we too old for this?” I am twirling my hair trying to figure out this one… Alex?

    Molly: All I can think to say is that we should examine our impulse as adults to tell children stuck on a point to “grow up and let it go.” If the point continues to hold their interest, we should ask ourselves why. Discipline and perseverance are highly predictive of success in life. Why would we want to train that out of our children?


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by P. Mimi Poinsett MD, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: What does it mean to be redeemed? […]

  • Maybe if a kid has devoted his/her life to, like, marrying My Little Pony or endowing Glen Beck with wisdom it would be as well to attempt distraction.

  • @ Alex, I still have young children who like to fight and bicker about balloons or lego pieces and who had it first. I know why I suggest to move on, because the fighting is disruptive and can lead to aggression so I separate them. If they want to continue the fixation, that’s cool, just not in my airspace.

    @ Graycard, yes!

    Overall, I think perseverance and discipline are virtues; just not to the point of aggression and territoriality.

    Molly: Gotcha. In the context you describe, certainly makes sense.


  • I know how it feels when someone expresses their pain and sorrow by saying, “My heart weeps.” Even when the tears do not come, my heart cries because of things I have done to others in the past. It really hurts, but imagining the hurt I caused just makes it hurt more…and doesn’t make the one I hurt feel any better, whether they know how I feel or not. Yes, redemption is a hard road. Especially when you feel like the person you’ve hurt doesn’t want to be around you sometimes; the best communication comes when we are far apart. What hurts more is that you know that person does love you, despite the hurt. But they just can’t stand to be around you for longer than 10 minutes. No matter how hard you try to stay out of their way or play the redemptive role you can’t try too hard, or you’ll smother. But you can’t be too soft either. It will seem like you don’t care. You teeter on the balance. If you fall, it’s a looong one…redemption is a very narrow road, like a tight rope. Not only is it a hard road; balance, patience, dignity, strength, and steadfast loyalty and kindness are needed to endure it’s journey. I only thought you had to apologize and try to do the best you can with what you have. But it’s so much more, and this article taught me that. Thanks, Alex.

  • I suppose we could follow the thought process through and ask if sociopaths are, similarly, denied the capacity for happiness.

    Signs do point to yes. Not a lot of serene sociopaths out there, instead people constantly rushing from risky action to risky action.

  • Your story inspired me to write this poem.


    Can he be saved before he is stoned?
    That sinner who has much to bear
    Do I have sins I have not yet atoned?
    Deep inside me, ones no one is aware
    The path to Redemption is easily postponed
    Staying on the road to Perdition, beware
    Can I be saved before I am stoned?
    I must take the path, no road will get me there

    Jeffrey Livingstone

    Jeffrey: Wow. Nice. Thanks for posting this.