"For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands”
For the past two and a half years, I’ve been learning and considering three words and their concepts in succession: forgiveness, absolution and atonement.
These concepts are steeped in religion. But I am not. So I come to them for their distilled applicable wisdom and not their spiritual promise. That also means that I have no structure of support or guidance with which to understand them. Which is why it’s taken me so long to understand.
I resisted forgiving at first because it seemed unjust. If you forgive someone who did something wrong, isn’t it a betrayal of justice? Even if the wrong done was unintentional? Even if the someone is you? If there are no consequences for actions, we lose the underpinning of the significance of our actions. If bad actions are forgiven, we give license to hurt without repercussions, we rob ourselves and others of protection from harm and we preclude our ability to grow and progress. If bad actions are forgiven, what’s the use of doing good?
As it turns out, this isn’t really what forgiveness is about. Forgiveness is not something you can give to anyone else. It’s also not the alpha and omega, but rather a part of a whole. Forgiveness is how you understand the reality that led to the wrong and how you let go of the anger and confusion surrounding it. Forgiveness is understanding you are not responsible for the wrong, but you are responsible for what you feel about it. It’s divorced from action. Once you realize the limits of forgiveness, it’s remarkably easy to do.
The difficult part is understanding that, sometimes, forgiveness is the only thing you can do. And that, most of the time, it won’t actually change anything outside of you at all.
Forgiveness is not absolution. Finally comprehending the distinction between the two was a revelation for me. We conflate these concepts constantly, and that’s the trap. They are different things. We usually ask for forgiveness from someone when what we really want from them is absolution. We want to be absolved of what we did wrong, the slate wiped clean, our conscience clear. We want to be reassured that the mistake we made is okay and we’re okay and everything’s okay.
Absolution does not exist. It simply doesn’t. Because actions do have consequences, and erasing that fact necessitates the most grievous consequence of all - draining our actions and our characters of meaning entirely.
Forgiveness is something an individual does for herself. She doesn’t have the right or the ability to absolve anyone else of the consequences of their actions. Even if we did have the right or ability to absolve someone, we would be wrong to do it. We would be cheating others of wisdom, understanding, growth and, of course, consequence.
After I understood the difference between these words, I thought I had unlocked the secret. I was able to forgive, and understand the rest was not my responsibility to carry. But I still struggled with the implications of that. I wanted to know that there could be positive action in place of absolution, that there could be a solid chance of wisdom and growth. So I came to another word.
We can’t offer absolution, but we can open ourselves to atonement. Atonement is a complicated process of facing wrongs done, understanding why they were done and what consequences they caused others, and taking responsibility for all it. There is no formula for atonement, no ritual of blood sacrifice, no rules à la an eye for an eye. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about engaging truthfully with the process of forgiving yourself. It’s something you should do with the person you wronged. They are uniquely qualified to understand the situation at hand; also they must have gone through their own process of forgiveness in order to be open to atonement in the first place, and therefore they can help you with yours. If they have not learned forgiveness yet, you can help them.
In the absence of absolution, we are, at a minimum, responsible for resolution.
There is a cost associated with opening ourselves this way, which is that no one may take the invitation to atone. You may want resolution, you may be ready and willing to help with forgiveness - but you can’t force anyone else to come to the process. That is where the words run out and there is only one left: acceptance.
Acceptance, however, is also not absolution. Do not confuse the two and trap yourself in the cycle all over again.
If you skip atonement, if you absolve yourself of wrongs you’ve done because you think it doesn’t really matter, that in enough time everything will just be okay, you have cheated yourself. You have impacted the honesty and significance of your character and actions from that point forward.
If someone neglected resolution with you and refuses atonement, you must accept it. But that does not change their character or actions from that point forward. You accept that as well. You also accept that your responsibility is your own character and actions.
Use your words, and write a new story.
For a long time, ever since my failed attempt at becoming a programmer, I wanted to have a local tech community of women I could teach, learn from and ask for/give support. So, about two and a half years ago, I made one.
I had heard about an organization called Girl Develop It that had started six months earlier in New York. It offered beginner programming classes with the goal of creating a welcoming, low-pressure learning environment. I wanted to do that. I arranged a phone call with one of the founders, Sara Chipps, and asked if I could start a chapter in Columbus, Ohio.
I had no idea what I was doing. I had a bit of experience organizing community groups, but only informally. I was completely unprepared to run classes, arrange schedules, find teachers, and eventually teach myself, all while ensuring that our primary mission stayed intact.
But I did it anyway. I poured time and effort into building up the program. I somehow found the people I needed, the space I needed. I started partnerships with local companies and community centers to sponsor our classes and meetups. I supported professionals new to teaching so they could learn how to guide people new to their field. I learned how to teach. I brought my daughter to my classes when I couldn’t find sitters and I learned how to live the life of being a single mother with a career and causes. I kept believing in what I was doing when plans fell through, when people I relied on disappeared, when I fell short of my goals.
I made mistakes. Sweet mother of Jack Kerouac, did I make mistakes. Slowly, I got better. I learned how to delegate and how to ask for help. I learned how to be tough when our mission was at stake. I learned that communication and collaboration with a dedicated group of people was the only way to build something new.
Now, two years down the road, I’m moving away from Columbus. I’ve transferred leadership to someone else. There is an entire team of people organizing the chapter now, some of whom started out as our students. They put their own time and effort into making our organization better and growing us even larger and stronger.
After the last class I taught, one of the students told me, “I was so scared to do this before class started, and now I feel really relieved and excited to learn this.” That was it. That was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t about getting people new jobs. It wasn’t about just raising the numbers of women in tech. Although we’ve taken steps towards both. This was, and is, about unlocking human potential. That’s it. That’s the most important thing in the world to me.
We’ve changed things. We’ve created something positive where there used to be nothing. We’ve made a community of women pushing their own boundaries while helping others to do the same. This city is different now because this exists. We made it that way.
Tonight I attended my last GDI Columbus monthly Hack Night, an event I started over a year ago to build community outside of our classes. Sometimes, in the beginning, the only people there were two or three organizers. But, now, we’ve finally gained critical mass, and, for the past few months, our hack nights have been full and vibrant. Beginners bring their projects, ask questions and get help. The more experienced in the community come to share their knowledge and passion. There is so much discussion, so much interaction. This community is thriving, completely independent of me.
I felt a little like I did watching my daughter go to school for the first time. You’re a success as a parent if your child grows into a healthy person independent of you. You’re a success as a leader if the people you brought together to fulfill a mission can still fulfill that mission without you.
I’m so proud.
And the best part is I know it’s really just getting started.
Yesterday, I wanted to suggest a few self-taught women programmers for an interview series (which someone else is conducting). However, I wasn’t sure how many of them had learned their craft via non-traditional methods, so, rather than contacting everyone individually, I put the word out on Twitter. I thought that a handful of the women I know follow me would respond if they were interested in participating and fit the bill.
But I keep forgetting I have a wider reach on the internet than I used to. As of now, that tweet has 335 retweets, 27 favorites and more responses than I can count.
This, of course, is awesome and I’m so grateful for and impressed by the interest. Unfortunately, I can’t accomodate all of the responses for this particular interview series. But I have another venue for you to tell your stories.
A while back, I made the High Visibility Project, to highlight the stories of women in technology. I haven’t had the bandwidth to keep up with it, though, and it’s been languishing on my list of things to redesign and reboot. But, well, why miss an opportunity like this to give more women a platform? Let’s start the reboot right now. If you were interested being interviewed, I would like to formally invite you to submit your story to the High Visibility Project and help us build a repository for women’s stories. You can submit no matter what your skill level or background is. Also, if you’re just starting out, watching the videos there is a great way to figure out your own path.