Long ago in Ancient Persia there lived two merchant traders, Mussa and Nagib, who set out together in a caravan with camels, horses and servants. They headed into the mountains and soon came to a river that was swift flowing, muddy and dangerous to cross.
Mussa being the younger offered to go first. He started across the river holding a rope to guide the rest of the caravan. Partway across he stumbled, lost his footing fell into the swirling waters and dropped the rope. Nagib did not hesitate. Immediately he jumped into the river and was able to reach his friend and pull him to the shore.
Mussa called his servants to him and said, "I want you to carve my words into the rock of these cliffs here beside the river. That afternoon and evening his servants chiseled while others made camp. They wrote, "Wanderer, in this place, Nagib heroically saved the life of his friend, Mussa."
The merchants traveled for many months and eventually returned to this same river crossing with loads of tea and silk. This time the water level was lower so the crossing was easy. Mussa and Nagib sat and talked by the stone cliff where Nagib's heroism had been recorded.
They soon got into an argument. They quarreled; and in a fit of anger, Nagib struck Mussa.
Mussa then picked up a stick. With it he wrote in the sand by the river. "Wanderer, in this place, in a trivial argument, Nagib broke the heart of his friend Mussa."
His servants came up to him asking, "Master Mussa, do you not want us to carve your words in the rock?"
To this Mussa replied, "I hope to forget this argument before the wind and water erase my words from the sand."
Many of us carry around words of anger and shamed that we have somehow carved indelibly on our hearts. For far too many of us, those words are directed at ourselves - words of self-condemnation that we have been unwilling to erase.
We spent all of last month talking about loving ourselves. We know that if we don't love ourselves, we truly can not love others fully. When we don't love ourselves, we become defensive and self-protective. Whether consciously or not, we find ways to keep others at a distance. After all, we think they can't possibly love us since we've concluded we can't even love us. And every criticism becomes a threat since our own self-love is so fragile.
I hope that the month of LoveYourself had a positive impact on you. A month of that message will not change everything, so if you don't now love yourself fully, passionately, and enduringly - you are not alone. To change a lifetime pattern entirely in a month would be a miracle indeed. And it would be very ironic and tragic to start hating yourself for failing to love yourself... I do hope though, that even if you don't quite love yourself fully yet, you have became more aware and are on the path to a self-love that opens you to allow love in from others and to make it possible for you to love others fully.
As I think about the work I have yet to do in learning to love myself, I recognise that one of the greatest obstacles is the things I have done wrong in my life. What could be greater evidence that I am not worthy of love than the painful, shameful memories of unforgiven, unaddressed wrongdoing?
Few of us get through this life without doing things - large and small - that we are not proud of - we do things that stand directly in opposition to our own best self-image and maybe cause us to feel ashamed. We all have a sense of the person we would like to be and we cringe at the ways in which our actions have fallen short of our intentions. If I could do that, we think, maybe I am not and will never be someone I can feel proud to be.
Yesterday was the Jewish "Day of Atonement" - in Hebrew, it is known as Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is Judaism’s response to our need to reconcile our personal aspirations with the reality of our actions. On Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, Jews pray and fast, but most of all, it is a day for acknowledging our failures to ourselves or to God and it is a day for making amends for wrongs done to other human beings. Yom Kippur provides – as does the Christian practice of confession – a ritualised way to let go of the pain of where we have not been the people we intended to be.
I know that the notion of confessing or even acknowledging our wrongdoing can make many of us feel very wary. It makes us think of words like sin and damnation and salvation, words that most of us are happy to leave behind to more traditional religions with a less hopeful view of human nature.
We are not going in the direction of sin and damnation today. I promise. But it is also true that liberal religious traditions have had a problem coping with the very real human tendency to do bad things.
The source of the problem is a very good and true belief: we are committed to a notion that people are basically good. But at the same time, we know we’re imperfect.
Without a way to address the tension we feel between what we do and what we know we should do, we tend toward one of two options:
First, we can rationalize our deeds – that is to redefine wrong action as right action – something that I fear happens all too often in our society as self-interest becomes enshrined as the greatest good.
The other approach we might take is what we could call ‘make believe.’ If we think that we’re supposed to be all good but know that we’re not, we’ll just have to pretend we are. In fact, we might even try to convince ourselves that we are all–good in our nature and character. This is not a simple superficial thing that is achieved lightly. It is a painful process of rejecting, condemning, and walling off parts of our own characters. It leaves us cautious and guarded – unwilling to be open to others for fear they will discover the darkness we are so carefully concealing. So very much is lost when we find parts of ourselves unacceptable.
We are all made up of many different and often seeming contradictory pieces.
Philip Simmons, a Unitarian author, says this:
“We do not heal ourselves by scourging or rejecting our sinful parts but by drawing them into a circle of holiness made large enough to include them. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight, nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. Our goal, always, is to transform evil through love.”
The way to deal with the darkness in each of our hearts is not to rationalise or to reject it, but rather to accept it. “You do not have to be good” Mary Oliver tells us. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
Acceptance of ourselves as we are is essential. “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Acceptance is not about choosing to turn to our worst and weakest aspects, but rather an essential step in becoming the person we want to be.
Interestingly, in Judaism, the word that is translated as sin is taken from archery. It literally means “missing the mark.” Sins are those instances where we have failed to be who we know we should be or do what we know we should do. The obvious implication of this approach is that we do aim for what is right and righteous. The work of Yom Kippur – and in fact the work of our lives – is to continue to aim high and then to recognise, accept, and try again when we fall short.
So, today, let us look back over the past year and recognise the places where we have missed the mark - where we have missed the target we ourselves set.
I don’t usually like to talk about the derivation of words, but I’m going to make an exception here. In Hebrew, Yom Kippur translates most accurately as the day of forgiveness. It is not a day for beating ourselves up or wallowing in our guilt, but a day set aside for seeking forgiveness from ourselves and from others and - especially - for granting that forgiveness.
The English translation - Day of Atonement - is an interesting one. The word “Atonement” has a sackcloth and ashes feel to it to me. It feels more like self-punishment than self forgiveness.
But the word atonement was created in the early 16th century meaning literally “at-one-ment” - the process of reconciling and becoming one.
Today is a day for reuniting and reconciling with one another and it is especially a day for reconciling with our own selves.
Today is a day to forgive - to reconcile with ourselves - to bring together all that we are. Today is a day to become at one. To become whole.