My English teacher’s tooth fell out during a self-flagellation scene of “The Scarlet Letter”. Mr. Baker got so cracked up by the maniacal pleasure with which Chillingworth observed the guilt-ridden Puritan minister Dimmesdale whipping himself that he…well, he laughed a little too hard I guess. His (false) front tooth shot out of his mouth and clicked along the floor before coming to rest near Anne Johnson’s Doc Martens.
The irony of my English teacher lecturing on the finer points of English literature with a missing front tooth for the next half-hour is the primary reason why I’ve held on to that scene for twenty-five years. The second reason is a bit more difficult to talk about.
Violating Your Own Moral Code
If it’s true that “To err is human,” then there is no doubt as to which species I belong.
I can identify with Dimmesdale on multiple levels.
Although I’ve not fathered a child out of wedlock while being a superstar Puritan theologian, I’ve violated my own moral code on more than one occasion.
These mistakes, as mistakes are apt to do, have not only hurt me, but people close to me.
The aftereffects of my transgressions have never found me bloodying my back with a whip or engraving the letter “A” into my chest, but I have mercilessly pummeled my soul to the point of being emotionally vacant for extended periods of time.
While I believed my psychological self-injury to be the noble, even virtuous thing to do at the time, I’ve grown to learn that this far from the truth.
This revelation is one that Hawthorne’s tragic character didn’t live long enough to see.
Three Fallacies of Self-Flagellation
Dimmesdale wasn’t a narcissist or a pervert or a predator like Alec D’Urberville in “Tess.” Instead, he was a good and talented man who, in a moment of weakness, violated his own moral code with a woman whom he loved.
Nevertheless, he had done wrong, therefore, he must pay.
This line of thinking anointed Dimmesdale as judge, jury, and executioner of his own fate.
The sentence Dimmesdale issued himself was to pay for his transgression by suffering a level of pain equal to that which he had caused.
As noble and just as this line of thinking might seem on the surface, there are more sinister fallacies at play.
Here are three that I’ve uncovered in my own life.
Inflicting pain on ourselves in equal measure of that which we’ve caused others requires that we know how bad they’re hurting.
As sensitive as we might give ourselves credit for being, we cannot burrow inside the mind, the emotions, or the soul of another being.
We just can’t know another person’s pain. Even when it’s someone we love.
2. We Presume to Know the Reparations They Desire
Self flagellation assumes that the person we hurt wants us to hurt in return. This is often not the case, however. While they may be furious with us in the moment, rare is the person who would want to see someone they care about tormented by the pain of self injury.
3. We Want to Hurriedly Restore Our Own Happiness
The third and most insidious fallacy of self flagellation is also the most selfish. The mistake we’ve made has upended our lives. Emotional chaos abounds and misery eventually sets in.
Naturally, we don’t like this and want everything to be right again. We want to move on with our lives and get happy as quickly as possible.
Dimmesdale reasoned that punishing himself would allow him to continue to function as a minister. He could go on writing and delivering those moving sermons for which he was so beloved.
But Dimmesdale found out, just as have I, it doesn’t work that way.
Wounds don’t heal wounds, time and contrition and commitment to improve oneself does.
Therefore, instead of lugging your cross up Golgotha the next time you make a mistake, what can you do?
These three things are a good start.
Three Healthy Ways to Move Past a Mistake
1. Feel Guilty
Guilt is a positive emotion in that it forms boundaries that keep us from becoming psychological and emotional anarchists.
If you’ve stolen from someone, you’ve violated their trust. Feel guilty.
If you’ve cheated in a monogamous relationship, you’ve betrayed your partner’s trust. Feel guilty.
If you’ve abused someone with less power than you, you’ve taken advantage of a helpless being. Feel guilty.
Your subsequent guilt is providing good information that will help you make a positive course correction.
The danger in sprinting past our guilt is that we risk searing our conscious with a hot iron.
How does one become unconscionable? One remorseless transgression at a time.
2. Apologize Genuinely or Not At All
“I’m sorry, but…” is not an apology. It’s a signal that you and perhaps those whom you’ve hurt have some soul searching to do.
To truly apologize you must clearly see and take responsibility for the error of your ways.
Perhaps you do have good reason in not taking sole ownership for your mistake. It could be that you’ve been pushed and prodded and provoked in such a way that caused you to finally act out.
But if this is the case, it’s time for a deeper discussion about what led to the mistake.
So have your discussion.
Just don’t apologize.
3. Take Steps to Improve Yourself
One of the surest ways to repeat a mistake is by saying “I’ll never do it again. I promise.” Doing so only sets oneself up for more failure.
Being a human is hard. Life is tricky and on our best days there is still a soft spot in our armor of steely resolve.
Therefore, don’t shop for an insurance policy that guarantees you against future mistakes. You won’t find it. If someone does sell you one, you got conned.
However, what you can do…what you should do, is take actionable steps that will make you a better, stronger, and more authentic person moving forward.
Go to counseling, join a church, break off toxic relationships, get on medication, change careers, whatever.
Just do something visible that will show the person you hurt that you are working on yourself.
I can’t imagine that someone who cares about your wouldn’t prefer that course of action over lashing yourself to a whipping post.
If they do, end the relationship.
Mr. Baker got that tooth fixed. All that was needed to continue to lecture with a Colgate smile was one trip to the dentist. I wish fixing mistakes of the heart were so easy.
So did Dimmesdale.
The fallen minister eventually confessed openly, but it was too late. Immediately after disclosing his sin to the public, the shamed and mortally wounded minister died in the arms of his illicit lover and mother of his child, Hester Prynn.
Perhaps he didn’t have enough strength to love himself again.
Hester lived out the rest of her days as a single mom to their fatherless lovechild, Pearl.
Get unstuck by believing the TRUTH about yourself.