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Friday, September 30, 2016

If You Screw Up, It's All Your Fault

As Rosh HaShana is coming up next week I've been thinking about Jewish guilt.

Of course, at work, we all make mistakes and we all feel bad about it. But as a Jew, at least for me, failure is never a "fun thing," like they say "it's a learning experience, reframe it."

No, there's always an extra edge to failure: "Shame on you."

Of course, we did grow up soaked in the Holocaust, both at home and in school, and my nightmares are full of Jews in the gas chambers, Jews getting shot, Jews getting beaten on the street, ghettos and rapes and cattle cars. And I think that it is a coping skill to tell yourself that somehow we deserved it.

A colleague visited the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture last week. I was telling her how we saw Free State of Jones, which showed just a sliver of the horrifying life of a slave. She told me about the very upsetting exhibits at the museum, including tiny shackles for little babies and the ships where they crossed for months standing up, living in human sewage.

The guilt for our mistakes can be so strong. "If only you had behaved better," we tell ourselves. "If only you would have studied more." "If only you would have done something when you saw the first sign of trouble."

We think to ourselves, "No matter what they did, some of it is your fault."

But isn't it the case that some people go through life like human Teflon? They make tons of mistakes and never seem to pay a price for them. While others, despite "doing everything right," just can't seem to get themselves up and off the ground.

There is a great line in the movie God's Not Dead, where the student is forced to refute his professor's atheism. One of the main arguments presented to him is the awful injustice in this world.

The answer, we learn, is that no matter how good you are, how hard you have worked or how deserving, sometimes it is a fact that "G-d said no."

He said no.

Even the best of us can end up standing under the volcano when it explodes.

I love the show Transparent on Amazon; it exemplifies this. The Pfeffermans are a Jewish family where the father (Mort, later Maura) wants to become a woman, and transitions.

In the '30s the Nazis burned uncle Gershon for this. And so implicit in every scene is Zayde's whispered accusation, when he catches Mort dressing up like a girl:

"Do you want to end up like your uncle? The Nazis burned him in the ovens for what you do!"

What Zayde was saying to Maura was, everything that happens to you--all of your pain, all the awkwardness and the rejection--all of it is your fault. Why can't you just fit in?

But watching Maura come out of herself, as flawed and obnoxious as she is, we know that her feelings are not just not wrong, they are totally and completely right. 

What the Nazis wanted to do to Gershon, and what society wants to do to the Mauras of the world, is squash the most essential part of their humanity: the right to be yourself, to be free to find meaning where life takes you.

This Rosh HaShana, as the world seems to be falling further and further into chaos, crisis, corruption and confusion, I fully understand how one can walk into synagogue in a panic.

But maybe there is another way.

Looking at the world in a fear-based way, seeking safety in the refuge of "no failure," is more like superstition than a rational approach to living.

Maybe our job on this Earth is simply to accept that we don't control...well, pretty much anything.

And so the best way we can live, the most moral, is to let ourselves be who we were made to be--and to give that same respect to others.
All opinions my own. Photo via Pixabay (Public Domain). No commercial endorsement expressed or implied.