Welcome to Day 12 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others. I won’t attempt to tie them together.
Blogger Sharon Astyk wrote a Facebook post on Tuesday about her prolonged and tortuous path towards a new house for her family of 10, which because of delays is resulting in her not being able to move many dug-up plants to her new home:
“Tomorrow is Yom Kippur. I’ve never liked it much — I think because I’ve often been fixated on the harm I’ve done, the mistakes I’ve made, resenting the day for making me atone, and thus consider what a crappy Jew and person I often am. I focused on the burdens, rather than the fact that the completion of the day casts them off, sets you free, lightens the load and lets you start again. Today, for the first time, I think maybe I see the point — that it isn’t the burden of all the ways you’ve gone wrong that is the center, it is the fact that those things you don’t really need to carry can be set down for good.”
Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and repentance in the Jewish faith. Or, as Astyk reframes it, a day of putting down the burden of grief and regret, carrying forward only what you need.
“I’ve grown so tired of grieving for what I did and what I did not do.” — Stealing Horses
I’ve written before about the intersection of grief and resentment. And about my favourite theologian James Alison’s discussion of forgiveness, which he calls “a process of undergoing ‘being undone’ from various traps, dead ends and ensnarlments,” and thus being able to participate in being (re)created. This is how Buddhist meditation feels to me, too, a way of ‘being undone’ from ensnarement, ensnarlment. Released from a trap. No longer a hostage. The burden relieved.
Little fellow wanted to know (he said)
Son, are you ready to die?
I told him I would have to say no.
‘Cause in my life, I only wanted things to go right.
Oh my God, I can’t believe the mess I’ve caused
I want to go back again.
Please, let me go back again. — Josh Rouse, “God, Please Let Me Go Back”
Most of us wish we had done something differently, handled a situation another way, chosen another path; some of us wish we could have a do-over on life, change a lot of things. As Greg House says in an episode of the TV show House, M.D. titled “Fidelity,” “We all make mistakes, and we all pay a price.” The price we pay, the consequence of our mistakes, is often an awareness of our complicity in the mess we’ve caused, and feeling the burden of lugging around regret and grief for those past actions or inactions, for what we did and didn’t do. Whether we fixate on the harm we’ve done, as Astyk says Yom Kippur can prompt, or whether we are only subconsciously aware of it, the burden still weighs us down.
So hello from the other side
I must have called a thousand times
To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done
But when I call you never seem to be home
Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried — Adele, “Hello”
There’s nothing wrong with regret; feeling regret means we’ve loved, tried, risked, followed our desires, and it also means that what we once desired we no longer do, so we have evidence in regret of having changed and of having an awareness of how we’ve changed. Ongoing self-blame can be damaging, though, when there is little chance to fix the situation. (And even when there does seem to be that opportunity, have you noticed that our attempts to “fix” a situation sometimes seem to have their own unintended and unwanted consequences? Which is not a reason not to try to right the wrongs if we can, but it’s worth remembering when we’re tempted to take noble action primarily to assuage the discomfort of our regretful feelings.)
Self-recrimination — and what it can lead to, self-loathing — is by its nature self-focused, and obsessively revisiting the hurt, like picking at a wound or scab, reinfects us with a kind of poison, trapping us in a cycle of dis-ease that keeps us from engaging fully in the life we have now. What if we could let the wound heal? What if we could set the figurative backpack down, or share its weight, and walk on, lighter by 40 pounds?
Nancy Hitt, in her article “The Road Not Taken” posted at Preaching Peace in 2008 (which I’ve commented on before), offers one way to cast off our burdens and disensnarl. She cites a New York Times article in which a review of psychological studies concludes
“that our sense of failure/regret is based on how we handle our memories of difficult events in our lives. Those who view their lives as being totally their own responsibility fare less well than those of us who develop what the experts describe as ‘complexity.’ Complexity is the ability to see more than one aspect of a situation. It involves being able to understand the contribution of others to one’s own life, and also to identify a variety of outcomes, positive and negative, rather than fixating concretely on just one. Studies show that this isn’t just the evidence of maturity, it is the process through which we develop maturity. We might also say that the broader context is the foundation out of which real love grows. …
“What truly captured my attention was an exercise a Columbia study prescribed for those in the throes of excruciating regret. It involved a deliberate choice to view one’s own experiences through an imagined ‘third eye.’ …. [I]t offers people the opportunity to observe the larger context of their own lives and achieve the peace of mind that otherwise eludes them.”
This is what Yom Kippur, prayers of confession, and other religious rituals offer us, a way to “be at peace with ourselves if we see things differently than we are at first inclined to. … Seeing things as part of the larger process rather than as restricted to the binary me vs. them makes all the difference.”
In other words, we’re part of a larger world of humans, all of us making bad choices at times, all making mistakes, all acting within cultural structures that preceded us and will continue after we’re gone — and understanding this can help us let go of our need to hold onto the burden of being any consequence’s singular cause.
This isn’t to absolve us of complicity or suggest that our actions don’t have consequences. But I go back again and again to James Alison, who says that our “search for reconciliation” — which is what seeking forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong is — gives birth in us to “[s]omething rather like a deep unconcern about myself, … and a desire to be reconciled with the other because I know that both he and I will be much more, and will be able to enjoy ourselves much more if we are reconciled. … Along with this there goes the sensation of how … extraordinarily lucky I am to have found myself caught up in this adventure, and because of that, of how lightweight, and almost frivolous it is.” (from Blindsided by God: Reconciliation from the Underside, 2006)
Can I understand that my actions matter and at the same time feel “a deep unconcern about myself”? I think that may be what Yom Kippur and similar ritual pauses in life are asking us to do: Stop for a few minutes and think about what you’ve done, feel it, see it for what it is, then let it go. Let it go so that it doesn’t get in the way of your connections with others, with the life force, with joy. In seeking to be reconciled, we direct our focus outward, not inward, and in so doing we can notice our shared role with other humans as both victim and victimizer, and feel compassion for us all, trying to dance while holding heavy luggage in both hands and strapped onto our backs.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.