It’s been more than a decade since a friend and I were near Chinle, Arizona, having breakfast with Leonard, a Navajo friend. That morning he told us about the Long Walk of 1864, when thousands of Navajo were uprooted and forced to walk hundreds of miles to retched encampments at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Stripped of their way of life, starving and ill, many died. Leonard explained that this Navajo story of sadness and rage, retold for more than 150 years, lives in the marrow of his people today.

Leonard, a kind and gentle man, explained that he had spent many years an angry and destructive man, abusing himself and his family. The time came when he knew he must travel to Fort Sumner to make peace and forgive, so that he could heal. When he arrived at the desolate reservation where his ancestors had suffered, he fell to his knees and wept. What he told us next, surprised us. He said, “In that moment I was finally able to forgive myself.” What? Wait! Doesn’t he mean he forgave those callous white men? I was shocked. I didn’t get it.

It has taken me years to explore the meaning of self-forgiveness and its intimate connection to self-love. Certainly I have been a victim of malice over the years and harbored resentment and anger. Sometimes I forgave my perpetrator, other times I held tight to my pain; neither was a true resolution. Because, either way, I was still a victim of a hurtful action. What Leonard did was different. He took full responsibility for his thoughts, his words, and his deeds, and in doing so, became the only one left to forgive. And when I, like Leonard, accept my responsibility, the perpetrator and victim vanish. There is only me and I am the only one left to forgive.

During my Long Walk through life I have hurt and been hurt by others. I know now that I was the one who chose the meaning those events would have. Now my Long Walk need only take me back home, to my heart, the most forgiving and loving place to be. And it is here, in an act of kindness and great power, I set myself free from those stories of the past, a victim no more, forgiven at last.