Blame—Yom Kippur Musings
It’s hard to believe it’s not your fault. No one else thinks it was your fault. Not your family. Not your friends. Not your colleagues. But you were there at the beginning. You were the adult in the room when everything devolved into a malevolent, maelstrom of malodorous manure—a steaming, hot, burning pile of fecal matter.
There must be something you could have done differently. You obsess over every decision made. You reexamine every step Where did you give in too quickly? Where did you delay too long? What if you had . . .?
You close your eyes to sleep at night, and your thoughts go right back to the replay reel. Depending upon your age you might even hear Warner Wolf say, “Let’s go to the videotape.” As you try to relax your mind races through every possible scenario—every decision—every path not taken. Do you read yourself to sleep to focus your meandering mind away from disturbing, sleep—blocking thoughts? At some point you must have fallen asleep because you wake up still reliving every minute and second-guessing everybody involved. You consulted with all the experts. You listened to wise counsel. You did your own research, and not just on the internet. You became somewhat knowledgeable in a wide variety of technology, philosophy, medicine, and industry best practices.
Of course, so long as you’re trying to fall asleep and banish these painful self-incriminations, your thoughts uselessly turn to every mistake you’ve ever made (or thought you made). Cross words with a classmate in 5th grade. A bullying incident in third grade—you didn’t even know the word back then. Regret over things said and not said. Actions taken and not taken. People you have disappointed, people who have disappointed you. Opportunities you have missed because you procrastinated. Mistakes you have made even though you knew better. Gross immaturity in the face of reasonable expectations and responsibilities. The illness, the accident, the failed project, the narrow escape, career misstep. The list goes on, but no one remembers any of this except you.
Why do this to yourself? What is the value of extended guilt, self-flagellation, and repeated communing with ghosts from your past? “Nobody goes through life undefeated” (Mike Lupica).
Humans seem to need atonement and forgiveness. The Catholic Church has confession. Jews have Yom Kippur which features a stylized group confessional as part of a long day of fasting and self-deprivation. Twelve-step programs all have steps eight and nine, but even after you have apologized to everyone who would care, remember, or have the ability to forgive you, this doesn’t seem to close the books. Why do you have so much trouble forgiving yourself, counting your blessings, and moving on? If God can forgive you, surely you can eventually forgive yourself.
It is football dogma that quarterbacks must nurture a short memory. They must be able to pass the football effectively, immediately following a devastating interception. This goes for players in other sports, too, and others such as soldiers and surgeons. The trick is to retain what can be learned from a mistake without dragging along the associated negative baggage to distract you from your goals, your life, and your solid night’s sleep.
Are there good reasons to continue to blame yourself? Reasons—certainly. Good reasons—only you can decide. For some people, taking the blame is more comfortable than the idea that ‘shit happens.’ If you’re to blame, you can deceive yourself into thinking that you maintain some modicum of control over your life. If the natural entropy and randomness of the universe just happened to take a dump on your doorstep, then the rollercoaster of your life leaves you no alternative but to just hold on tight. That’s too scary for many.
Guilt also plays a major role in political and social progress and activism. Whether the blame causing that guilt is well placed is a discussion well beyond the scope of these musings.
The solution? Easier said than done, of course. Instead of wallowing in negative thoughts of your own lifelong inadequacies, failures, and mistakes. Instead of alternatively being blinded by your dazzling successes and brilliance. Take a cold, clear, hard look at where you are today. Determine what your goals are. Plot a course from where you are to where you want to be and begin working toward the next intermediate step. The past informs this path only so far as the wisdom you have gathered about what works and doesn’t work for you. Your motivation is strictly rooted in your acceptance that you have only one life, and there is no value in dwelling on the past. Regardless of how you got here, placing credit or blame is irrelevant. There is no place to go but forward.
On this Yom Kippur, acknowledge responsibility for your own actions (or inactions), extract what wisdom you can from past events, apologize and atone as appropriate, and move forward. Grasp for the wisdom the accept that you are human and imperfect. Believe that God grants us forgiveness. As the gates close at the end of the Neilah service, have the grace to accept God’s forgiveness and sincerely forgive yourself as well.
As we learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 2:21 “He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.”
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.
2 October 2022