The gift of being “bad”

| holidays, musings, poems |

As I have mentioned in some of the sits, I’ve always struggled with some of the traditional ways T’shuva and repentance were taught to me – the guilt-inducing, chest-beating, “I’ve-been-so-bad-but-next-year-I-will-be-better” variety. As a kid during the High Holidays, I was racked with guilt about how “bad” I was, and how badly I wanted to be better. Once I told my little sister that every time I was mean to her, she should say the words, “Rosh Hashana!” and I would stop.  A few weeks later, I yelled at her about something and she cried,  “Rosh Hashana! Rosh Hashana!” I repressed an enormous urge to punch her in the face. I stopped yelling at her, but my anger did not go away – it simmered right beneath the surface until the next time she, or someone else, crossed my path, when I would lash out again.

The same thing happens when I tell myself  I’m going to be “better” these days. It never hurts to set a Kavannah (intention) to try and change habit patterns- like when I tell myself to get serious about flossing or removing my make-up before going to sleep. But telling myself to be nicer to people, to forgive hurts, to open my heart or to be more compassionate – for me, it doesn’t work.

For me, it works better to bring the gentle light of awareness to WHY I am not nice to people, to WHY I can’t forgive someone, to WHY my heart feels closed. Usually, the reasons are shrouded in hurts and shame that are really old, or deeply repressed. When I honor those feelings – even feelings that have led to lots of suffering – they come loose and fall away on their own. In a class I once took with Rabbi David Ingber, he called this the “T’shuva of love.”

I know that everybody’s path to T’shuva is different, and different things work better or worse for different people. If you are like me, however, I want to offer you this:

Those ways you were “bad” this year – those things you are ashamed of -those things are little voices from within you crying out for your attention and healing. They are a huge gift – points on a map calling for you to sit with them, and hear what they have to say. I know I’m mixing mad metaphors here, but you get the idea. Our bodies are beautiful, miraculous machines that are continually trying to move us closer to healing and wholeness, even when we act unskillfully.

Finally, here is a poem that speaks to this point for me, although I have no idea what the poet, Norman Fischer, was thinking when he wrote it:


Tonight it’s quiet or in the quiet
Or, at least, the quiet
Is all around us. What is it
I’m worried about when I
Worry about anything? What is it
I tangle up in, wanting to go home?
From down here I look up at myself
In the little bright square of window
Staring down at me in bemusement
Querying what’s it worth. But that’s
A question snaps shut on itself
Thoughts with teeth or claws
To scrape away to the very core. What
Cares contains its value, a half life,
Mixed, no doubt, yet fair.
It’s always fair or anyway
It’s always what’s there…
And it’s not our fault.

(c) Norman Fischer, from Slowly but Dearly , 2004.