The Key

Dylan Stewart 

I was trapped by guilt, trapped by shame in a torture chamber of my own making. In a fortress high above the world with no windows and no doors. Punishing myself every morning. Beating myself every night. Locked in a circle, a cycle of constant regret.

Mistakes were made. Choices of my own design. I had overlooked my morals, turned aside my better judgment, and taken what seemed like the easy path.

Challenged by the relationship I was in, I found myself backed up against the wall. Deciding between two evils, neither one of which I could live with myself through.

How does one choose between children? How does one balance the past and the future? How does one turn aside someone with nobody else to look after them? I had no options. I had no way out. At least that’s what I told myself.

I was living with the mother of my son. My 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship lived with us as well. The mother and my daughter were diametrically opposed. Pushed up against each other, sparks flew, chemicals ignited, and bigger and bigger explosions were imminent.

When choices are made… bad choices, we look for excuses. We look for someone to blame. We look for some way to pass the guilt onto those around us. Such was my fate, forced to push my daughter out of my house, or leave my son fatherless, I was lost.

I struggled through the options. On one hand, my daughter was 12, her mother had died when she was a baby and she had only known me as her parent. She was completely dependent on me for everything… love, support, protection, guidance.

On the other hand my son was a toddler, and I knew deep in my heart if I walked out the door with my daughter in hand, I might never see him again. I certainly wouldn’t be a part of his life. I wouldn’t be the father he needed, just some absentee dad who saw him on weekends and took him to Disneyland.

He needed me. She needed me. And I just needed the fighting to stop, the arguments to cease, the constant battles to finally fall behind me.

My daughter was a survivor. She was smart, strong, resourceful. I told myself that no matter what she would be OK. Yes it would hurt her and she would certainly be scarred, but somehow she would make it through and not just survive but thrive. I didn’t feel the same about my son. He needed a dad.

Hell, they both needed a dad but I couldn’t be in both places at once. I couldn’t keep both ships afloat.

So I chose. Pushing my daughter out of my house, and potentially out of my life, I made the worst decision I could ever imagine. I betrayed everything I had set out to be as a dad. I turned away from what fatherhood meant to me. I turned away from the promise I had made her mother before she had died… I had abandoned my child.

And in the moment of the decision… emotions numbed by pain and suffering… my rationale doing its best to justify my choice, I pushed it all down, threw myself in the fortress, and locked the door behind me.

Guilt and shame can eat you alive. They can devour your heart, your will to live, your very soul. How do you forgive yourself? How do you set yourself free from the choices you have to make?

I carried my burden like a weight, pointing the finger at everyone… The mother, my son, even my daughter herself. Anything to avoid looking in the mirror. Anything to avoid the truth… That I had failed. That I had taken the easy way out. That I had been a coward, unwilling or unable to confront the situation head-on.

And so it was year after year. My heart shackled. My joy imprisoned. My relationship with my daughter broken into a million pieces that could never possibly be repaired.

I couldn’t live with myself, couldn’t live with the choices I had made, and I rolled over it in the back of my head again and again. I had failed. I had dropped the ball. I had given up. And I laid my blame in front of me like a golden carpet to walk along while I held my head in shame.

But somewhere, somehow I began to rebuild myself from the inside. Somehow, someway I began to see a glimmer. It started with a dream where I found my future self staring at my past self with love in his eyes. My eyes. No resentment. No regret. Just love and understanding.

That dream broke me open, and afterwards I began to look at myself differently. Staring at myself and finally seeing myself as I had been, truth laid bare, flawed and broken, humbled before myself and ready to turn it all around.

You see, forgiveness isn’t theoretical. It isn’t hypothetical. It isn’t just a choice or decision we make. Forgiveness is an action we take. Forgiveness is a pathway through the darkness. A map to find yourself.

When you blame, hold shame up to your chest, and refuse to let it go you’re playing the victim. You’re playing the martyr. You are falling to your knees and wailing “woe is me.”

There there are only two choices. Live with that shame, hold onto that blame, punish yourself endlessly, and eat yourself away inside … Or forgive.

Every argument, every confrontation, every fight, every battle is really just with yourself. Whether someone wrongs you, or you wrong yourself doesn’t matter. Whether you point the finger, or carry the cross is irrelevant.

In the end there’s only forgiveness. Love. Faith. Belief in a better way. In a better you. In a better life. In a better future.

It starts with forgiveness. It starts with owning your responsibilities, looking yourself in the mirror, admitting your flaws and your humanity, and making amends. To yourself first.

The choices we make are free will. The decisions we believe are forced upon us are actually chosen by us… Chosen for us to grow, to learn, to live and lift ourselves and those around us up out of the muck. Out of the swamp of our own suffering.

I was fortunate. I saw the truth. Saw my piece of the puzzle. Owned it fully. Felt the pain, and the shame, and the sadness. And let them all into my heart to mix around and combine and coalesce and catalyze…

And on the other side, mystically, magically something happened. The key appeared. The door opened of its own accord, and I found myself free. Free to look at tomorrow in a different way. Free to hold my son without shame or regret. Free to reconnect with my daughter like I never thought possible.

I slowly healed the damage between my daughter and I with patience, with time, with ownership of the choices I made, and with an overwhelming desire to make everything better every day.

It’s there for you, just on the other side of that locked torture chamber. Just inside of your heart, on the other side of your finger-pointing and blame game. It’s there for all of us.

Maybe you don’t think you’re the one that needs forgiving. You look at the person across from you who wronged you. You look at the person who held you down, abused you, took your choice away from you…

But the forgiveness is still inside of you. Because somewhere, deep down, you think it’s your fault. You think you could’ve done something different. You think you could have fought back or pushed harder or spoke out louder. And whether you could or you couldn’t isn’t the point. The point is that forgiveness starts within.

Forgiveness starts within like a seed planted in fertile soil, gradually spreading its roots, gradually poking its sprout above the soil, gradually taking the sun and the warmth and the light and the love, pulling the nutrients from the ground itself and spreading, spreading out, growing those roots, growing those leaves, until one day you bloom.

Like a sunflower, popping open and spreading its golden arms to the sky and saying I am here. I am free. I am loved. I am alive. I am grateful.

And I forgive you.

Dylan Stewart is the NorthStar Man who changes lives by connecting people to creativity, their true purpose and direction, and engaging in living their best life now.

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