Hitler isn’t in hell, but I am.

The title of this blog post is not supposed to be provocative. It’s something that came up in counseling while talking about self-forgiveness. Thinking about those words from time to time since then has been helpful to me because they’ve been keeping in check my tendency toward self-flagellation. I have a bad part of my brain that thinks I deserve all the worst things in the world and that in the afterlife I only deserve the harshest judgment from God. I don’t even know how to accurately or objectively assess my own moral standing, if that makes sense. I don’t know whether I’m a good person or a bad person. I guess I think I’m a pretty bad person. I’m a bad person because I think bad thoughts. Even when I was questioning the existence of God, I was sure that my thoughts were going to send me to Hell. And I didn’t even believe in it, really.

The thing is though, that when I articulate these thoughts about myself to my counselor, I begin to see what’s wrong with them.

I often categorize myself as “not a superstitious person”. People who don’t believe in God may scoff at that, because belief in anything that isn’t tangible is sometimes relegated to the realm of superstition. I do believe my faith suffers when I approach it from a superstitious angle. Let me try to illustrate what that looks like, in my experience:

I think a particularly abhorrent thought, therefore I will go to Hell.

I consume media that has no redeeming qualities and is morally bankrupt, therefore I will go to Hell.

My actions are not a reflection of my thoughts, therefore I am a hypocrite and I am going to Hell.

Basically I have created a way in which even my good actions will send me to Hell because I’m not being true to my bad thoughts. I think of any good actions as a way to make amends for my bad thoughts, but even that isn’t enough to escape Hell because God knows what my thoughts actually are.

I’m trying to accept that this is B.S., but it’s like I have to rewire my brain for that to happen.

I’ve gone on long enough about this, so let’s get back to Hitler.

My counselor asked me if Hitler was in Hell. I think he knew what I would say before I even responded, probably before the question was even a thought in his head. You don’t counsel someone for months without getting a sense that you’re talking to the kind of person who thinks there’s a good chance Hitler might not be in Hell. I am one of those people and maybe I’m very obvious about that, despite never having talked about it before because frankly the topic is done to death.

Why wouldn’t Hitler be in Hell? So many reasons, each of which is as improbable as the next, but it’s what I believe, so let’s get typing:

  • None of us can truly know what goes on inside another person, even the people closest to us.
  • None of us can know if, or to what extent, another person has sought forgiveness for their sins.
  • We pray for the release of all souls in purgatory in order that they may go to Heaven. If Hitler was able to escape eternal suffering in the afterlife, there’s a chance he could be in Heaven right now. I don’t know, I’m just typing insane things. Bear with me.
  • No matter how evil and destructive a person is on earth, it is not up to me to make a judgment that is reserved for God alone to make (this ties in to why capital punishment is also wrong, again, for so many reasons, but having the hubris to act like God is surely a great sin).

I can make every excuse in the book for why Hitler might not be in Hell. But I can’t make the same excuses for myself. Why? Well, I’ve had a pretty nice life. I was brought up well. I have great parents. They did a good job instilling a sense of right vs. wrong in their children, and I credit my Mom with adding empathy into the whole equation. Without empathy, the entire effort would’ve been pointless.

At this point, anything I do that is evil or destructive is entirely my own fault. That is why I think even the littlest things could send me to Hell.

At the end of that counseling session, as I was walking out the door, I said, “Hitler isn’t in Hell, but I am.” And it made me laugh. So now I like to say it in my head, all the time, and especially when I need to add some perspective to my bouts of self-judgment.

My counselor told me that he questions the existence of Hell because of what that says about the God who would create Hell. I do agree with that. I can’t say that I believe in Hell either, because to me it only surfaces as a concept when I’m approaching my faith in the most superstitious manner possible. My thoughts about Hell are indicative of the worst parts of my faith that I would like to challenge and hopefully dispose of. A person should not believe in Hell. A person of faith should believe in God. I only believe in Hell when I want to punish myself.

Self-forgiveness is the theme of this post.

Lessons from counseling

I’ve been seeing a counselor since July. I find it very helpful though I still have times when I’m not as talkative as I’d like to be. Of course, when I get home after a session like that, I can think of a dozen things I wish I had said. I’m probably not the most verbose patient even on a normal day, so when I’m having the type of day where I struggle with talking, I worry that I come across as brain dead. It’s possible that waking up earlier would help, to give myself time to do more than “get ready.” My appointments are at noon so I usually wake up at 11:00 a.m. and leave at 11:45. I reach peak talkativeness at around midnight when my shift at work ends. If my counseling sessions happened at 12:15 at night, I’d probably overstay my welcome every time.

I’ve been to counseling in the past at various times. The first time was during my parents’ separation so I must have been about 13 years old. It’s possible I’m not remembering that correctly, but I remember why we were there. I remember one session that included my brothers and I think another that included the whole family. I don’t recall if we went multiple times or not.

I do remember not knowing what to say. I needed and still need a lot of prompting. It’s hard for me to effortlessly carry on a conversation. I had doubts about returning to counseling this time around for that exact reason, but I think it’s going just fine.

About a month ago, my counselor was asking me questions about my family and what our relationship is like. I can’t recall how the subject came up. I didn’t re-enter counseling due to any kind of family issue, so it’s not a subject I tend to talk about very much unless it’s just casual stuff. Sometimes I talk about my brothers and my parents and what they’re up to, but again, just casual stuff.

I think my counselor was trying to get a handle on what my relationship was like with my parents. We somehow got on the subject of my Dad. I told him that I have a good relationship with my Dad, though it was not always that way, particularly after my parents separated. I told him about some of the guilt I still have about the way I treated my Dad back then, for example, when I would refuse to visit him at his new place. I had also screamed and yelled at him in anger more than once and acted in a way that was almost certainly hurtful to him. I’m sure it was hurtful because I intended for it to be hurtful because I wanted to punish him. My counselor asked me if I had ever told my Dad how I felt today about these things that happened back then. I started laughing at the thought of how terribly awkward and uncomfortable that would be. I said maybe I would, eventually. I have this image in my head of a situation that happens years from now in which my Dad is on his deathbed and I give him a handwritten letter explaining how I feel.

It’s good to write this out, because I can see immediately how ridiculous that is. It’s ridiculous to first of all carry around this assumption that my Dad will live for (x) amount of time and that we will all definitely have a clear idea of when the end is near and we’ll be able to prepare for it. That is a fantasy. It’s ridiculous to think that I have information that he might want to hear and I’m withholding it out of embarrassment, or fear, or something I can’t put a name to. There are a lot of ridiculous things about the whole scenario, but those two aspects of it strike me as being the most shameful.

It also might be ridiculous to assume that any of it would have any great meaning for him. I don’t actually know that it would. It might just be an assumption borne out of watching too many movies.

One good thing about Now vs. Then is that Nowadays I tell my Dad I love him a lot more often. Before we hang up the phone I make sure to tell him “I love you.” We hug more often than we used to. My brothers have told me that they don’t do this, and that’s fine. I think at some point I just decided that I was going to try treating my Dad the same way I treat my Mom when it comes to affection. With my Mom, it has always been easy to say “I love you” and to give hugs. So at least I had something to start with.