Forgiveness: Two Applications

Part 1: Forgiving Myself, Or Something.

Kol Nidreeeeeeeeeee

It’s Yom Kippur today, so naturally I’m 1. eating toast with nutella (fast lasted till approx. 10:45a) and 2. thinking about forgiveness.

One thing I’m thinking about a lot these days is how change seems to come at the intersection of love & anger. You have to have both. We have to love enough to want to change and to recognize that change is even possible. And we have to be angry to have an analysis of what’s wrong, and to have the fire in our belly to move forward.

This particularly hit home at synagogue last night, when I looked around and thought: how fantastic is it that we have this day that recognizes how totally imperfect we all are? And then I looked around at all the imperfect people, and felt a lot of love for all of them. Love: a feeling I have not felt in synagogue for some time.

So: A trillion more thoughts on love and anger to follow. Part II of this mini-series (on forgiving the Jewish community) may come in a few days — I have a lot of thoughts and feelings to sort through. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on forgiveness of myself, the other great place where I’m struggling these Days.

The way I’ve learned (and taught) leadership development is that it requires a lot of observation: you watch someone and then you give them feedback on their work. When I was starting out, that meant primarily that I was watching students — a student leading a training, and the students participating in the training — and giving them feedback.

But over time, as I took on other positions in the organization, and as we developed a more robust expectation and methodology for students developing other students, it required that I zoom out and watch a few different layers of development.

If I stepped into an intermediate-level training, for example, I’d watch:

  • The senior organizer staffing the training developing
  • The junior organizer staffing the training developing
  • The advanced students in the room, who were placed there for this purpose, developing
  • The trainers developing
  • The new students in the room

Like the Russian Nesting Doll of development. Ooh, that’s so fun. It makes you feel like you are seeing the WORLD at work.

OK, but you know what’s less fun? When that same principle is applied to your own thoughts.

Between the beginning of #YORC and the High Holidays, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to get out of this year, how I want to improve, what I’ve done wrong in the past year. And turns out that my pretty anxious, hard-on-itself, obsessive brain, no longer working so intently on work stuff, has lots more space to think about all of that, instead. And it’s getting ridiculous. Here’s the Russian Nesting Doll of my brain’s inner monologue:

  • You said you were going to take Spanish classes. You’ve been in San Francisco for TWELVE DAYS, ALREADY! Why haven’t you signed up for classes yet?
  • God, I can’t believe you’re obsessing about that. #YORC was supposed to be about relaxing! You need to get better at relaxing!
  • What, are you nuts? Now you’re hard on yourself for not RELAXING? What kind of privileged, elitist nonsense is that?
  • Ugh, you said that you were going to become more compassionate towards yourself. You can’t even do that right.
  • You know what you need? To go to a meditation class.


And this is where I struggle with forgiveness, and maybe compassion more broadly: How do you hold yourself accountable to something and also absolve yourself? At the same time.

On a low stakes level, how do I both not let myself off the hook for taking poor care of my physical health, and not scream at myself that I’m a terrible human for not going to the gym?

Or, to take a higher-stakes example, how do I get better at, say, not being so quick to anger — at people I care about, people I work alongside, people on the damn bus — while not being quick to anger at myself about being so quick to anger??

Our tradition teaches us that it’s not sufficient to just say the words year after year — we have to actually change. But I’m not always sure how to correct that behavior in a way that’s not berating myself.

This crossed my mind, for example, at synagogue yesterday, after we recited the Al Chet, the confession of sins: UGH, TURBOW, YOU ASKED FOR FORGIVENESS FOR GOSSIPING JUST A FEW HOURS AGO AND HERE YOU ARE, GOSSIPING, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU TERRIBLE PERSON!!!!!!!!!!

In other words, where do love and anger — in this case, at ourselves — have to meet in order for us to change? How do we clearly see what’s wrong with ourselves, without totally throwing out the baby of our goodness with the bathwater of our sins? How are we gentle with ourselves, without giving ourselves permission to be shitty?

So it’s a thing I’m working on.

Here’s one thing that’s working. I’ve learned that part of the purpose of meditation is to be able to just observe your thoughts instead of engaging with them, or being judgmental about them. You’re supposed to simply notice them, like “clouds in the sky” or “raindrops on a body of water” (choose your metaphor).

In other words, to be able to say, “oh! You are having a thought! Wow, that’s nice. Anyway…”

Yeah, clearly, I struggle with doing that.

But I had an epiphany this week. I’m finding that if I literally say, out loud to myself, “I notice that you’re thinking about how you haven’t signed up for Spanish classes yet,” it allows me to skip the next nineteen ridiculous steps. I have to actually say it. Small, but it’s working well.

So, maybe that’s helpful.

OK, now I have to go think about:

  • How imperfect this post is.
  • GOD, you should just feel proud of yourself for writing this down! It doesn’t have to be perfect! Worrying that something is imperfect is the #patriarchy speaking, you dum-dum.
  • OK, calling yourself a dum-dum is really unhelpful.
  • Hey, I notice you’re calling yourself a dum-dum.
  • Etc.