Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Self-Forgiveness

Yom Kippur is supposed to be the most somber and difficult day on the Jewish calendar. For me though, the days that weigh heaviest with significance are the ones leading up to that apex of repentance and atonement: the Days of Awe. Yom Kippur itself is but one day. Anyone can live in physical discomfort for a little over 24 hours, unless you are too delicate a flower to have ever endured hunger, thirst, a day without being at your most hygienic, and depriving yourself of carnal relations—not that being parched, starved, smelly and unbathed exactly puts one in an amorous mood. Of course, the day is also supposed to be marked as a time when the heavens are said to open up, and us puny, imperfect, sinful little humans must tremble before the King of Kings, as though on trial, though not to plead our case, but to beg forgiveness for our self-acknowledged sins. It can be an intimidating and daunting task for the faithful, but that is, I would argue, the point of Yom Kippur. We take a day to get that out of our systems and start over for the year, cleansed after repentance, and ready to be the good people that we know we can be, and that we have just spent an entire day in shul begging God to let us prove we can be. In Judaism, we believe in a merciful God that we can trust enough to grant us our forgiveness after sincere teshuvah, and the whole exhausting day should be spiritually rewarding in the end. Seeking forgiveness from God is one thing, but seeking forgiveness from others in the days leading up to our collective trial date is generally uncomfortably humbling, and can even feel undoable at times. Each year, there is always one person I can never seem to forgive and never know how to apologize to: my own damn self.

The theme of asking for forgiveness from those we've wronged as well as being open to accepting forgiveness from others is absolutely one that I can get behind. I am really good at being apologetic. As a matter of fact, I'm downright British about it. It doesn't have to be my fault, and I'll still be sorry. And it's not that I'm insincere--I really am sorry for any hand I may have played, even peripherally, in any unfortunate turn of events that I might happen to witness. If I'm the recipient of an apology and true forgiveness is sought from someone who has wronged me, I cannot wait, literally, cannot wait to accept said apology, breathe a sigh of relief, move on and let the anxiety of encountering conflict with another human being keep me from having another panic attack (a trait which I do possess in spades and am, incidentally, quite sorry for). But if I've done something that I really am sorry about on a deeply personal level, something that I have to take full responsibility for and ownership of, I generally have enough humility to recognize that, and to apologize.

Self-forgiveness however, is, not too surprisingly, one of the most difficult things for many of us. Anyone with a conscience is well aware of that overly critical voice playing over and over in our heads each time we make a mistake, feel foolish, experience regret, or struggle with something that we feel we should have a better handle on. Anyone who stays up at night listening to the loud voices of anxiety and worry over what has already happened and passed, and what hasn't even happened yet, is really listening to the voices of self-criticism and the self-flagellation that follows. If we knew how to apologize to ourselves after we've beaten our psyches to a bloody pulp over what we have done, we would be able to put the forgiveness band-aid over our own wounds and allow true healing to take place. If we knew how to forgive our own transgressions, we wouldn't feel the need to beat ourselves up in the first place, and the never-ending cycle of self-inflicted abuse and neglect could actually end. We would even be more forgiving of others and sympathetic to the needs of those we have wronged. It’s kind of like not being able to love someone else until you learn to love yourself, as clich├ęd as that sounds.

Why do we have such a hard time forgiving ourselves? So many of us can forgive the worst actions of our loved ones, and even strangers who act out of line can get our sympathies. You can forgive the person you are in love with to an obscene degree, and you can forgive a neglectful family member, even after years of their transgressions. But when it comes to the self, we are often so much crueler than we would ever be to another person who makes the same mistake or commits the same crime. Perhaps because the only two beings who ever see every single thing that we do, who knows every single thought that makes a blip in our minds, and every fleeting feeling that passes through us, is God and the self. We know how we are at our worse, because we live with it. We can hide, mask, and disguise much of ourselves from everyone and everything else, but we can’t hide from ourselves any more than we can hide from God.

My first Yom Kippur was easy enough--I was in Jerusalem, a new Jew, dressed all in white and wearing some hideous plastic flip-flops that I had bought at the corner store for a few scant shekels because I wanted something to wear on my feet in my dorm shower stall that I shared with four other girls. They were too big for me and slid off my feet when I walked if I wasn't careful, and they had huge, gaudy wads of cloth hot-glued to them in order to resemble, I guess, flowers. I knew that I was only supposed to shun leather shoes for the day, since the point is to not be too comfortable, but I really went all out with those awful flip-flops. I didn't eat or drink anything, of course, and though my lips were chapped and killing me, I denied myself the use of Chap Stick, just in case the use of it was halakhically off the table for the day too. I didn't brush my teeth or use mouthwash (which my not quite as religiously observant friends found rather disgusting), and I let my hair do whatever it felt inclined to do without the aid of a brush. I looked a mess and felt a mess, and since it was my first Yom Kippur, I thought that I must be doing it right. I spent the day in shul and napped at a friend's place between the marathon services, and walked through the carless streets of Jerusalem, marveling at all of us Jews dressed in white, strolling casually down the middle of Emek Raphaim. When I broke the fast with a large group of friends at a party (where some of us thought it a good idea to drink vodka on our 25-hour empty stomachs, because that's what you do when you are in your early 20s), I really did feel a sense of renewal and joy. Maybe that was the bourekas and vodka kicking in, but I like to think that Hashem had a hand in it too. All in all, I felt really good after the long and tiring day of seeking atonement from God, like it really was an opportunity to start over, tabula rasa.

Fast forward a few Yom Kippurs later and I have not been able to find that same sense of serenity in the spirit of the season. It’s not that I have done anything that I find deeply unforgiving since my first Jerusalem High Holidays, but perhaps it’s the mistakes, regrets and missed opportunities that have stacked up since I've become a self-aware Jew, along with my own propensity to be too hard on myself that has made the season particularly burdensome. Other people come and go in our lives, and they may choose to apologize to us when they've hurt us, they may not. They may be receptive to our apologies when we cross the line, they may not. God is merciful enough to see every single blemish on our souls and still seal us for the year in the Sefer Chaim after we seek atonement. We have to live with ourselves though, and true teshuvah means really cleaning the slate each year, and leaving the mistakes and regrets in the past. That’s why this year, I am making the effort to look in the mirror and say “I’m sorry” to the one person who will always be with me, and to forgive the one person I cannot walk away from, cannot shut out, cannot lie to myself about. It’s about time, and there’s no time like the present, especially when the present is now, in this Jewish season. After all, if I can’t even do that, then what is the point of seeking atonement from anyone else? If I deserve forgiveness from others, than surely I just deserve forgiveness, plain and simple. I'd be willing to bet that that goes for all of us. In fact, I know it does. 

So gmar chatima tovah, and my apologies for this long and ponderous post. Please do forgive me.

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About the Person Manipulating the Mouse and Keyboard

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Jerusalem, Israel
I write about being Jewish, but not being born Jewish, living in the Jewish homeland, longing for living in the Jewish homeland when I'm not living there, Jewish holidays, customs, ideas, thoughts, and the occasional thing that has nothing to do with anything Jewish. But mostly, this blog is very Jewish.