I’ve been doing the high holy days all wrong. Okay, I know that holidays aren’t something we DO (except in the way they are) and that you can’t really do it WRONG. (At least I don’t believe you can.) But, if high holy days are something we do and it IS possible to get it wrong, then I have. The problem is that I’ve been focusing on my wrongs (and let’s be honest, others’ wrongs as well) It’s just plain wrong.
(Okay, I’m done with all the wrong word play now…more or less.)
In September, my family and friends jokingly remind each other that “the Book is open”. We’re referring to this mystical place where God, in a Supreme Santa kind of role, is accounting for what we have done and balancing it against any repentance we’ve engaged in, when considering what our coming year will hold. (Despite this, there is no singing about being naughty and nice by any synagogue choir that I am aware of.) The story is that at the end of Yom Kippur, the Book closes and the peaks and valleys of our lives are inscribed for the next year. I don’t think most of us believe in a supernatural God or a Book. We don’t think that God will be writing up our year in the coming days and that if we do the work to account for our actions that God will provide a year for us full of joy and gladness. Yet, despite many of our atheist tendencies, we are taking on the charge of reflection and accounting as well as planning what our year might look like – so maybe we have an innate sense that we are made in a Godly image. Or maybe it’s just cultural.
It IS cultural. There’s no question about that. Millions of Jews all over the world will be attending a service or dinner over the next week where transgressions and atonement will be discussed and considered. So many of us are taking time in the coming week to think about what we did last year, make some repairs and consider what we want to be and do in the coming year.
I realized this year that I’ve been missing a step in the process. This is the step that can transform the kind of thinking that I’m doing over the holidays from brow beating, guilt rendering, demoralizing or paralyzing to the kind of thinking that will make me stronger and more capable.
How could I have missed this step?
The step is forgiveness and it has been right in front of me for years.
Selichot begins the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. I’ve been attending Selichot services for the better part of a decade. It is a series of prayers asking God to forgive us. That’s right – starting BEFORE erev Rosh Hashanah, there is a high holy day ritual focused on forgiveness. Forgiveness first. Before we begin to repent. Potentially, before we’ve even begun to confess.
I’ve missed the significance of Selichot falling before Rosh Hashanah every year. Maybe I missed it because the sequence seemed incongruent. Aren’t we inclined to think about forgiveness as something that follows rather than something that leads? You apologize to me and then I contemplate whether I forgive you.
Why is Judaism guiding us to forgive before we start accounting for actions? I’m not sure what was intended when these rituals began but here’s my theory: I believe forgiveness comes first because it focuses our thinking on learning instead of threat. This focus on learning engages our very best thinking. In other words, it gives us the capacity to broaden and build our lives instead of to narrow them. Barbara Fredrickson has a large body of research demonstrating how positive emotions catalyze thinking characterized by broadening and building and negative emotions drive thinking that is characteristically narrow, missing great amounts of detail. I think it’s amazing that the sequence of rituals for the holidays can guide us to maximize our physiological potential.
I’ll explain how.
Placing forgiveness first engages our problem-solving parts of our brain versus the part of our brain that experiences threat. I confess (tis the season, after all) that before this past Saturday night, I wouldn’t have made a natural connection between forgiveness and problem solving. But, I do now.
I learned on Saturday night that forgiveness is akin to recognizing one’s humanity. Maybe not everyone’s idea of a rockin’ Saturday night (my husband stayed home and watched a movie with the kids instead). I attended a Selichot program and listened to Rabbi Micah Streiffer and producer, actress and story-teller Jen Podemski speak about forgiveness from Jewish, Ojibway and personal perspectives at Kol Ami in Thornhill. Through these perspectives, they taught me the connection between forgiveness and humanity. It resonated with me so much that it inspired this blogpost.
I had never had the clear thought that forgiveness is an acknowledgement of another’s humanity before. But it makes such sense to me. Forgiveness is synonymous with mercy and mercy is synonymous with humanity. I think we often focus on forgiveness as something we offer in exchange or response – usually to someone’s apology. When we do that, we’re placing practicing forgiveness after atonement, but Selichot comes first. Judaism is guiding us to think about forgiveness before we have even enumerated what we have done wrong (and before others have as well). So, what is it that we are forgiving?
The idea of “forgiving” is a limiting paradigm that we need to shift. Forgiveness isn’t an exchange. It’s an acknowledgement – a guiding principle.
We are acknowledging being human. We are acknowledging that we are flawed. That is our starting point.
Acknowledging that to be human is to be flawed means that we start with being right instead of being wrong. Every human is flawed. The ‘right’ way is to be flawed. The flaws aren’t a sign of weakness, they’re a connection between all of us. That makes them something to manage – a problem to be solved.
When I start with right and wrong, I am engaging in binary, narrow thinking. It is hard to avoid blame and fear in this thinking arena. This kind of thinking engages the more fearful areas of my brain. It naturally narrows my perspective, reducing the number of options I might consider and increasing the amount of stress hormones I’m producing, making my body tired and my stomach hurt.
If I start with forgiveness, that is, if I start by acknowledging my humanity and others’ humanity, then I engage higher level thinking. Kristin Neff’s research has demonstrated that practicing thinking about common humanity strengthens our relationships and increases our well-being. These kinds of thoughts increase my capacity to consider the problems to be solved. I am able to see people’s actions (including my own) as challenges instead of threats. Challenges are problems to be solved. Threats are battles to be fought. This kind of thinking will enlarge my arteries and increase my memory capacity. I will feel more capable and actually be physically healthier for thinking this way. If I start with forgiveness, I can make goals and plans for the year that are guided by rational judgement. If I start with threat I will miss a lot of information when making my plans and minimize the potential for positive connections with the people around me.
I regularly encounter the fear (in myself and others) that accepting that we are flawed will let us off the hook. I believe the opposite is true. We’re not letting ourselves off the hook by acknowledging that we and others aren’t perfect. We’re saying there IS a hook. We’re taking responsibility and we’re doing it in such a way that we maximize our opportunities to learn from our situation. When we account for the possibility of flaws, when we expect them or better yet, search to identify them, then we can plan and problem solve effectively. In Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull, Co-Founder of Pixar Animation and Co-President of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, says that strong organizations are built on this very principle – that we must acknowledge and seek the flaws that exist so we can begin the problem-solving process. Cultivating problem solving will lead to our very best selves – the best individuals and the best organizations. It is a model that works everywhere because it maximizes the natural capacity of our thinking.
I want to bring this kind of thinking to as many areas as I can. These Holidays are a handy place to start practicing.
I’m going to start with forgiveness and keep returning my focus to our humanity. I believe this practice will encourage the generation of thoughtful actions that I’ll be motivated to follow through. I’m excited about the possibilities – possibilities that broaden and build rather than narrow. That’s the kind of work I want to do for myself this coming year and the work that I want to lead – at home and in the world.
I’m grateful that I’ve entered this period of reflection with the underpinning of forgiveness. Thank you to Rabbi Micah Streiffer and Jen Podemsky for providing an inspiring message of hope, reflection and kindness this past Saturday evening. You shifted me from being wrong to being human.