Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Wisdom From the Airwaves: Yom Kippur Edition

I've known for a few years now that while I have always loved books, I seem to absorb important moral and philosophical lessons better from media. This Yom Kippur, just as I have several times in the past, I watched the Coen Brothers' incomparable film A Serious Man. I plan to watch Atonement later, if only for the title, but A Serious Man is the only film I can really say feels like a Yom Kippur movie to me. Even though the holiday doesn't appear in the movie, I see new levels of its take on personal responsibility, sin, and repentance every time I watch it. As I was loading it up in Plex, I noticed it was billed as a black comedy, but I think of it as a morality play blending Job-like suffering with an understanding of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

To explain why, I'll also need to talk a little about two specific episodes of the show Six Feet Under. Perfect Circles and All Alone . Actually, I don't need to talk about them all that much. All I need to say is that when taken together, Nate from Six Feet Under is undergoing the same exact trial as Lawrence Gopnik does in A Serious Man. Both men fail and are punished. Nate's trial is about overcoming his pattern of betraying the women he loves and seeking greener pastures after a certain amount of time, while Lawrence's concerns the ethical dilemma of accepting a bribe from a failing student. And in both cases, he tells us about the Uncertainty Principle in his own words, so that when we find out he is going to die, we realize he was the cat in the box all along.

The terrifying part of this usage of the Uncertainty Principle is when one realizes that God is the thing with the power not just to give you cancer, but to decide immediately that the already-tested growth is going to be cancerous, at the exact moment when you decide to accept the bribe and change the student's grade. It is not a coincidence that the phone rings immediately after Larry erases the F and writes a C- in its place. Just as it is not a coincidence that after years of vacillating about his career and cheating on one wife, Nate Fisher dies right after he makes the choice to cheat on his pregnant new wife. Either we we repent, or we may not be sealed in the Book of Life for the year to come. This is the narrative of both characters, with the added tension from the Uncertainty Principle being used to point out that we never know at what point God might judge us unworthy and yank our life away.

Much as I would like to launch into my usual rant about how God as a critical parent figure judging us from the sky infantilizes people and prevents them from truly taking responsibility for their lives, today I am religiously obligated to be more introspective than that, and I do consider this day potentially valuable. I can see how for a certain kind of mind, the idea of being accountable to a cosmic being feels more urgent than trying to become a better person just for oneself and one's friends or family. I understand it because I used to be that guy. But I also think the message of the holiday is encoded in the usually communal nature of our confession of sin: it is a time about reconnecting to your loved ones, making amends for whatever you've done that hurt them, and most importantly, for breaking destructive patterns that are harming yourself as well.

In that spirit, I wish everyone a helpful day of introspection about whatever it is you regret from the past, especially the past year. I know that I can be dismissive, pretentious, or honestly just mean at times. I take people for granted, and I'm awful at keeping in touch, even with the people I'd like to see more often. If I have done anything in the past year, deliberately or unintentionally, that caused you to feel hurt, unloved, unimportant, or like I wasn't really your friend, please accept my sincere apologies. Maybe I was preoccupied with something that seemed more important at the time, or maybe I was sincerely being an ass. Perhaps we could talk about it if you're so inclined.

A rabbi once compared today to a car wash: better to set aside some time for washing yourself off and cleaning up your messes, than to wait so long that the grime becomes caked on and it's nigh-impossible to make a dent in it. It's not even noon yet, and already I have a long list of issues and regrets to work on with my therapist. That is invaluable, and nontraditional as my observance of the holiday may be, it is still tradition that gave me access to the list. I have long struggled with the concept of "sin", as the older I got, the more I began to see it as beating oneself up with self-imposed guilt. Repentance is the important bit, and repentance is nothing more than the moment in which we decide whatever we did was a bad decision and we aren't going to do it again. That's all: just be more awesome this year than last year.

I wish you all an easy fast if you are fasting, a sweet New Year, and many useful insights on this Day of Introspection.

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