Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins Friday night. As readers know, I’ve been working on my cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting—in preparation for the deep rituals of t’shuvah—reorientation—that mark the period of the High Holy Days.
One part of that work requires searching my heart and mind for knots of unfinished business: do I need to clean something up with a friend? To ask for or offer forgiveness? All year long, I’ve been doing my clean-up as I go along, like a tidy cook. I’m not holding anything I need to work out, and no one has called to to ask for a sit-down with me to talk through things I have overlooked.
“That’s great,” said my “t’shuvah buddy” (a partner for this annual exercise of soul-searching), “but what about forgiving yourself?”
I have trouble getting my head around the idea of self-forgiveness, self-compassion. When people say I am hard on myself, I immediately begin rationalizing: not really, I just have high standards, I just happen to be the kind of person who likes avoiding mistakes, I just…
I’ve been thinking about it almost every day for the last two weeks. Something must have gotten fed up with my obtuseness, because life has been rubbing my nose in my mistakes lately. As a result, the idea of self-directed compassion is beginning to come into focus.
I had a small auto accident a few weeks ago: no one hurt, not much damage. This was a first for me, and other than calling the police and exchanging information with the other driver, I didn’t know the rules. The other driver was upset and I felt shaky too. The accident seemed the result of some small miscalculation—hers, I was sure—and that seemed incidental to the human story of treating each other with kindness when our lives happened to collide. So I was gentle. The other motorist listened while I gave my account to the officer; then the officer told me I could leave. This week I learned that the other driver told a different story in my absence, and the accident was ruled my fault. I’m going to appeal and all that. Even if I don’t prevail, I am mindful that the consequences were small, that it could have been much more serious. But when I hung up the phone after talking with the insurance agent, I burst into sobs that didn’t stop for a long time.
For that moment, at least, the incident cast a long shadow over my view of the world. I felt foolish for having treated an intrinsically adversarial game—in the annals of auto insurance, someone always shoulders the blame, there are no no-fault accidents—as a human encounter. Then I felt hopeless because the horribly flawed insurance system promotes hostility and conflict for profit, punishing those who refuse to go along. The more I thought about it, the more the story inflated into an operatic saga of tragic manipulation and the more I berated myself for getting into the accident, for failing to play by the awful rules, for wanting to prevail by the awful rules, and so on.
I enlisted my husband’s help. After listening sympathetically to my moaning and weeping, he counseled having compassion for myself. An aha moment! All at once, I understood that the intensity of my misery was in direct proportion to my habitual determination to avoid mistakes. To my terror of messing up. Which is grounded, of course, in the immigrant alienation of my childhood, my early passion to learn the rules of a rejecting society, to impersonate fitting in, even if I couldn’t actually pull it off.
Everybody makes mistakes, even we who habitually measure twice and cut once. What matters most is what we do next.
Several years ago on Yom Kippur, I took part in a service that began with a powerful guided meditation. Gently, the leader conducted the congregation to a place of acceptance. When we were there—when we breathed in sync and the energy of the room had quieted to a whisper—she began repeating two words: “You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven. You’re forgiven…” Everyone smiled, everyone wept. Even now, repeating those words to myself, I feel a remarkable lightening of spirit. My shoulders relax. In my mind I see myself walking happily through the countryside, each step springing as high and wide as a pole-vault. I feel free.
I wish all of us a year when compassion—for others and for ourselves—washes us as tenderly as a loving mother bathing her child.