What's Wrong with You?

Yom Kippur, part 1

“Atonement Day”
by Chaim Stern
Once more Atonement Day has come.
All pretense gone, naked heart revealed to the hiding self,
We stand on holy ground, between the day that was and the one that must be.
We tremble.
At what did we aim?
How did we stumble?
What did we take?
What did we give?
To what were we blind?
Last year’s confession came easily to the lips.
Will this year’s come from deeper than the skin?
Say then: why are our paths strewn with promises like fallen leaves?
Say then: when shall our lust be for wisdom?
Say now: Love and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall embrace.
What’s wrong with you? That question is a focal one at Yom Kippur. As Chaim Stern asks:
“How did we stumble? What did we take? What did we give? To what were we blind?”
Our confessions, like our promises to do better, are too easy, and shallow. Our lust is not for wisdom.

So many things are wrong with you. That message is a key aspect of Yom Kippur -- because it's a time for focusing on doing better in the year ahead.

I usually prefer to say there’s nothing wrong with you. You're perfect. The very first time I ever preached from the White Plains UU pulpit, four and a half years ago, when I was a candidate to become the congregation's minister, in a sermon called “Blessed Affliction,” I said:
“A newborn is perfect, and at the same time, we wouldn’t want it to stay exactly as it is for 40 years. Having the capacity for change, growth, and learning is a key part of what makes them perfect just as they are. So it is with every infant, every child, every youth, and every adult. Perfect. What we aren’t, and can’t be is everything. We have our gifts, and with them come our shadows. We have our vulnerability, our woundedness, our brokenness. I’d like to say two things about that. First, the shadow is necessary for the gift. Being not so good at X is what allows you to be good at Y. The so-called 'weakness' is what makes the strength possible. What we aren’t and don’t makes possible what we are and do. Second, I want to go a step further than that. Your weakness IS your strength. The part of you that seems broken is itself your gift to the world – it is your blessed affliction. You can’t have both the wisdom of experience, and youthful exuberance. If one of them is your gift, it’s not a fault that you don’t have the other. If your gift is speaking your mind freely, it is not a fault that you occasionally give offense. If your gift is diplomacy, it’s not a fault that you don’t speak your mind freely. If your gift is being tall enough to dunk a basketball, it’s not a fault that your aren’t small enough to be comfortable in the back seat of subcompact car. Not a fault – but we might say it’s the shadow side of your gift. It’s the thing that you aren’t and don’t that makes possible what you are and do. The shadow is not some unfortunate, if forgivable, shortcoming. The shadow is the necessary enabling condition of the gift.”
While Yom Kippur asks us to reflect on what we did wrong, my usual approach is to say: Wait. You can’t simultaneously exhibit contradictory qualities. You can’t be sagely and exuberant at the same time, can’t be both garrulously revealing and skillfully circumspect, can’t be both tall and short. So be who you are, bring your gifts to the world, along with the shadows that go with those gifts, and let other people bring different gifts.

If you did something you now regret, my usual approach is to suggest that we begin by noticing that there were reasons you did what you did. We face competing demands pulling us in opposite directions. Our own needs compete and pull in opposite directions. We try for the best balance we can at the time.

We get angry, we get scared and anxious, we get sad, we get tired, we get stressed, and then we do things that aren’t the things we would do if those conditions weren’t present, but all those conditions arise for good reasons. They are natural responses that we need.

Are there more skillful ways to handle them? Maybe. So we can work on our skills, but it’s not our fault that we weren’t born already having those skills.

And skills do take time to develop. The time you take learning one skill is time you aren’t spending developing another skill. So, again, you can’t be everything. Ease up on yourself.

That’s my usual approach. But I sometimes go another way. I sometimes remind myself of the Japanese expression, “shoshaku jushaku.” It translates literally as, “to succeed wrong with wrong.” Life is one mistake, and then another mistake. Or it’s all one continuous mistake. Whatever you do, it’s a mistake. There is never any chance of getting it right. There’s a zen saying: “Open your mouth and you’re wrong.”

This can be liberating. No need to stress about how to get it right. You can’t. So relax.

There’s a story of Deshan, in 9th- century in China. As the head teacher of a monastery, Master Deshan gave regular sermons in the evening to the monks to instruct them in their training.
One evening the assembly gathered, and Master Deshan said, “I’m not giving a sermon tonight. I’m not answering any questions, and anyone who asks a question will get thirty blows.
One monk stepped forward and made a bow – which is what they did before asking a question. Deshan hit him. The monk said, "I haven't asked a question. Why did you hit me?”
Deshan said, "Where are you from?"
The monk said, "I come from Silla [in Korea]."
Deshan said, "Before you even got on board the ship, you deserved thirty blows."
This is the same Deshan who, on another occasion told a monk, “if you speak, you get thirty blows. If you do not speak, you get thirty blows.”

The monks under Deshan were learning the principle of shoshaku, jushaku – one mistake after another. It’s how life goes, and it’s not a fix-able condition. If it’s all a mistake anyway, our judgmentalism tends to relax.

So: What’s wrong with you? I like the answer, “nothing,” and I also appreciate the answer, “everything.”

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yom Kippur"
See also
Part 2: Upsides of Failings
Part 3: Called to Repair Relationship

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