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Forgiveness and the First Responder

The first time you do CPR on a real person… it’s one of those calls an EMT/Firefighter/Police Officer will never forget. None of those sterile mannequins. It’s a real person whose family might be watching your every move. I still remember finding the gentleman on the kitchen floor. My crew was well trained and swift to action. My initial job was chest compressions. Since it was my first time, I can tell you I was a little jacked up.

With good CPR you want to do 100-120 chest compressions a minute while pressing down about 2-2 1/2 inches. That allows blood to flow into the heart chamber and then out to the rest of the body. Go too fast and it doesn’t work. I was excited that day; I know I was pushing around 160-170 compressions a minute. (I think I was playing “Staying Alive” in my mind at 78rpm instead of 33 1/3.) My paramedic friend had to tell me to slow down.

Now I know this guy was behind the eight ball to start with. Most people do not survive a cardiac arrest in the pre-hospital setting when CPR is delayed. Anyway, he didn’t. I left wondering if I somehow screwed something up and that is why he was no longer walking the face of the earth. Did I go to fast? Did I not go deep enough? Was my hand placement correct? (Could we have saved him?)

As first responders we can be especially hard on ourselves. We second guess our actions when things go wrong, and a lot of times we place blame on ourselves even when nobody else does. We can be our toughest critics and the last one to give ourselves forgiveness.

A recently published research article explored why firefighters are reluctant to seek mental health treatment. Yes, it’s true that we don’t like our co-workers knowing that we are getting counseling. We perceive that they think we are weak and can’t handle the job. But something more interesting else came out of this study: Those who were less forgiving of themselves were far less likely to seek clinical help.

“The present study also found significant and large associations between self-forgiveness and mental health symptoms in firefighters such that those reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms, PTSD symptoms and suicidal symptoms had lower levels of self-forgiveness.” (Carpenter, Thomas P. et al. “Dispositional Self-Forgiveness in Firefighters Predicts Less Help-Seeking Stigma and Fewer Mental Health Challenges.” Stigma and Health. April 4, 2019.)

That caught my attention. Forgiveness is a big topic for many chaplains and people of faith.

I didn’t expect an article from the American Psychological Association to offer a theological perspective on forgiveness. But from my perspective as a chaplain I find self-forgiveness is not enough. To me, giving yourself forgiveness is like giving yourself a birthday present. It’s nice but doesn’t mean the same as if someone else gave it to you. Forgiveness from God means so much more. I’m not talking about a salvation experience, even though I think that is very important. I’m talking about forgiveness from God for possibly letting a man die because I did CPR wrong. Forgiveness from God needs to come first. Without it, forgiving myself doesn’t have much weight with me.

I suggest we as chaplains probe the area of forgiveness when talking with our first responders. See if this is really a root issue. We may be able to help. And now we have evidence that low self-forgiveness may keep our first responders from getting the mental and spiritual help and health they need.

Chaplain Chris M. Wade


South Carolina Public Safety Chaplains Association

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