On Yom Kippur Eve, a few hours before the holy Kol Nidre service began, I made the requisite phone calls I make every year... those suck-it-up-and-make-amends phone calls to anyone I might have hurt or slighted in the lunar year just past. I am not an intensely observant Jew, but I am a deeply committed one. Though I am selective about the rituals and traditions I choose to observe, I have never shirked my responsibility to repent for my sins on Yom Kippur and to ask forgiveness of those who have not seen me at my best. Whether or not one adheres to the belief that on Yom Kippur our fate for the next year is sealed in the Book of Life, contrition for one's misdeeds is always a good idea, so I made the calls.
The responses of my family and friends were identical to the responses I received last year and every year of my adult life. All were variations of, "Don't be ridiculous. There is nothing to forgive. You are a wonderful friend and did absolutely nothing to offend me, nor could I ever imagine you being hurtful. No forgiveness necessary."
It is the same stock response I give to all who look to me for clemency. Though I've been accused of being overly sensitive all my life, I don't carry grudges. I have always been quick to forgive, and the older I get, the faster I forget. It is difficult to nurse a grudge when you can't for the life of you remember the incident that hatched it in the first place.
This year, with no one to forgive for offenses real or perceived, and no one to be forgiven by, I took a new tack altogether. I decided to beseech myself for forgiveness and then grant it. As I approach my sixth decade on this plane, I determined it was high time to show myself some mercy.
I know myself better than anyone else. I know I am capable of hurting people and probably have. I have broken promises to myself. I have made some poor decisions on my journey through life. I have made mistakes with my children and I have not visited my mother enough. I have sometimes done the easy thing instead of the right one.
A week has passed since I faced this challenge and here's what I've learned. It is waaaay harder to forgive yourself than it is to forgive the infractions of others. And forgiveness can sometimes be confused with making excuses.
Once, when one of my teenage sons was being horribly teenager-y, I hit him. I hit him on the arm and he didn't even wince. For years I told myself I was exhausted that day and at my wit's end, and he drove me to it, and every parent loses it once in a while. Those are excuses. Hitting your child is just plain wrong and not every parent loses it in the way I did. This year I am not justifying my behavior, nor am I absolving myself from responsibility for it. I am simply and finally, forgiving it.
I am forgiving myself for not allowing my youngest to skip school on the day the city threw a parade for the victorious World Series winners, The Philadelphia Phillies. Zack was a high school junior at the time and everyone knows junior year is the most important and he wasn't doing well in one of his classes, and blah, blah, blah. The kids who stayed home could be counted in single digits. Even the faculty didn't show. School was cancelled when it was too late for Zack to make it to the festivities, and the Phillies have been godawful ever since. I know Zack won't be scarred for life from this, and he hasn't held it against me, which is more than I can say for myself. Nonetheless I feel compelled to ask the smart woman in me to forgive the stupid one.
Those are examples of the easy things. Forgiving yourself for who you are instead of what you've done requires vast reserves of honesty and fortitude. This year I forgave myself for not being as talented as Jonathan Franzen, as thin as Jennifer Aniston, or as driven as Hillary Clinton. I forgave myself for not making it to Broadway, and even more for not having the nerve to try or the perseverance to keep on trying. I forgave myself for not writing a bestseller and for not being someone who rushes to the scene of a natural disaster to help with muscle instead of money.
Yom Kippur left me exhausted this year, but somehow lighter. Forgiving oneself is a daunting proposition, but it is a cleansing exercise. All of us with a half a lifetime behind us should grant ourselves a day of reckoning before moving on to greet a new dawn, rife with possibilities for enlightenment and also for screwing up anew.