“And Know the Place for the First Time,” September 20, 2015, Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
I have always had an odd appetite for spiritual absurdities. Little cultural quirks that no one else worries about engage my radar, and appear to me full of unsuspected meaning. For instance, did you know that this coming February, in San Francisco, will occur the 50th Superbowl game? Maybe you did. But did you know that the National Football League has decided to abandon, just for this year, its traditional Roman numeral system? They claim it is because their graphic designers felt that the single capital letter ‘L’, which is the Roman numeral for 50, did not have sufficient aesthetic interest. Now I’ll grant you that ‘L’ is not a terribly fascinating letter, but I have my suspicions that there is more to this decision than meets the eye. I’m persuaded that ‘L’ has been pushed aside because it has an image problem; because in contemporary American culture it stands for ‘loser’, and nobody wants to attend, or play in, Superbowl Loser. I know; right? This is what we have come to as a society.
It’s funny, but it’s not. We appear to have dispensed with the concept of losing as an honorable outcome of striving; winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. The larger than life celebrity of Donald Trump didn’t start this trend, by any means, but he certainly personifies it. In his vision of what we might call ‘Winners Only World,’ there is no room for the valiant but unsuccessful effort; no wisdom to be gained from those he categorizes as ‘losers.’ They are pointless, dispensable, without value. Success is the only measure of what is worthwhile. This is a brittle way of being in the world, because we are all, in some dimension or other, losers. If enduring marriage were a contest, just to choose a handy example, Trump himself would be a two-time loser. Every one of us has been unsuccessful at something; that assurance is as much a part of our shared humanity as the promise that we are all going to die. It is also part of the experience that *makes* us human, in fact; it is the inescapable evidence of our own failures that nurtures our capacity for sympathy and understanding toward other beings. Compassion for the disappointment of not achieving a goal arises toward someone else only when we have had the experience ourselves, and the desire to help each other grows stronger when you yourself know what it means to not be able to accomplish something that matters. Without the awareness that comes from being losers, our egos can expand unchecked, and lead a person to assume that he or she simply *is* superior to everybody else.
Oddly, this position is not one of happiness. I think we do our children a disservice, for instance, when we try to protect them from any experience of frustration, failure, or not winning. Paradoxically, a confident sense of selfhood is best arrived at by knowing both how one has succeeded, and what one is good at, *and* where one has failed, and may have less ability than others. Of course it is pointless and cruel to humiliate children – or anyone else for that matter – when they experience losing, but it is very productive to help them acknowledge and accept that losing at times is inevitable, and happens to everybody. To live with the expectation that one must always win is to live in constant tension and stress; it is spiritually unhealthy.
I would suggest that our larger culture – both our economic system and our political climate – is unwholesome in this regard. We no longer share an understanding of how to respond to losing, or to failure. We don’t know what to do with people who take a risk that doesn’t work out; who do a wrong thing, an incompetent thing, a misguided thing. I wonder, if you go deep enough, whether this might even have something to do with the stranglehold that the prison-industrial complex has on our nation. We no longer know what it means to atone for a crime, whether a criminal can ever again be a non-criminal. We have no social consensus about how to apologize – what constitutes a genuine apology – or how to accept an apology, or how to extend forgiveness. None of us, I think, have any practical idea about how to express meaningful regret for the racist and imperialist aspects of our collective history. This makes us relentless in our forward-looking, as Trump himself demonstrated when responding to the question of whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness. “I don’t bring God into that picture; I just go on and try to do a better job from there,” he replied. “I think in terms of ‘Let’s go on and make it right.’”
Now, there is something to be said for not wallowing in what is past, since it cannot be changed no matter what anyone does. Yet the refusal to ponder our mistakes and failures at all is a kind of denial in the service of self-conceit, and a counsel of perfection that demands “just try harder, and make sure you win next time!” It leaves us without comfort in our disappointment, and leaves broken relationships untended and unhealed. It refuses the wisdom that can only be gained from facing into self-doubt, an uneasy conscience, and regret, as well as the potential to learn from history so that we might not need to repeat it.
The wisdom of the Jewish tradition is manifest at this time of year, when the people are asked to acknowledge their failures of loyalty to the covenant by which they intend to be united and guided. From Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish new year, which was last Monday, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will be this coming Wednesday, there is both a personal and a community focus on the process called Teshuvah, which means literally ‘turning around’, or more broadly, repentance.
The word Teshuvah has a very physical implication, as if one had gotten on the interstate from the wrong entrance, and was now driving 60 miles an hour away from their intended destination. In this sense, you can be mistaken without having bad intent – there is nothing inherently wrong with heading south on I35, but if you want to go to Des Moines from here, it won’t get you there, no matter how you feel about it. To do Teshuvah, you have to notice that you are headed the wrong way, find the next exit, get off the highway, and then get back on going the other direction. No excuse about how it was dark, and the sign for the ramp was badly marked, and you were distracted by a big truck honking at you, will make the universe change so that you can arrive in Des Moines by driving south – at least from Kansas City. Part of Teshuvah is having the humility to accept the evidence that you are not getting where you wanted to go by following the path you are on, and being willing, literally, to turn around.
From a moral perspective, Teshuvah is about recognizing that certain actions and behaviors and even attitudes, do not help us to become the kind of person we would like to think of ourselves. We all have relationships with other people that we want to be positive, nurturing, respectful, intimate, life-enhancing – and we all do things that detract from those qualities, and give pain to the very people we would wish to honor and cherish. We just do; it’s human nature. Not our best aspect, but inevitable. We also all have values that we want our lives to reflect – honesty, strength, service, creativity, generosity, courage – and we all at times behave in ways that do not move toward those aspirations, that make us less, rather than more, the kind of person we hope to become. We all have so many reasons why, to tell the world and to tell ourselves, but for the purposes of Teshuvah, the why isn’t important. What matters is the turning around; the clarity of vision that sees the impossibility of getting where we really want to go on this road, and the humble fortitude to make that tangible U turn onto the path that will take us in the direction of our true destination.
This is not easy. Our Jewish friends would say that it takes ten days of concentrated effort – every year. And maybe it doesn’t get easier, but I’m thinking at least it becomes familiar. Which means, of course, that like any other ritual, you can let it become a rote habit, and just go through the motions, and not let it really touch you, or change you; that’s always an option. But there might be something else that is also possible. There might be, as the years pass, and the season comes around, again and again, a recognition that we know this place. As Leslie Takahashi says, “Each time we walk the road toward forgiveness, we mutter that we have been here before.” It’s not news, that we get off course; it’s inevitable. We as individual persons, in our own unique, specific lives; and we as communities — cities, nations, cultures, congregations. Teshuvah is not for some other group of pathetic losers; it is for us, all of us, for all of us have lost our right path in one way or another. The question is only whether we can find our way back; remember what we once aimed for, who we said we were going to be.
I’m all for making America great again – indeed, I would like America to be greater than it ever has been in the past. I would like to see an America great enough to acknowledge that we have yet to ever fully live up to the promises of our founding; great enough to affirm that our greatest days of liberty and justice for all are ahead of us. The greatness of America is where we are going together, by absorbing the bitter lessons of the past and all the times we have missed the right path, or even looked straight down it and willfully chosen the way of thorns and tears. That is Teshuvah; repentance for the harm done, determination to find a better way, admitting to one another, and to ourselves, that we have not been what we are called to become.
And there is, of course, another side to the spiritual practice of repentance, which is forgiveness. Teshuvah requires the faithful one to seek reconciliation with any person they have harmed or caused pain; what then must we say to someone who comes to us, expressing sorrow for hurt that they have done in our lives? Although Jewish teaching recommends a spirit of openness and compassion, forgiveness is not required – for indeed it cannot be forced. What is required are deeds of kindness, and refraining from acts of vengeance. It is human nature to want those who have wronged us to suffer, but human nature is a funny thing. When we act as if we had compassion, we are more likely to find that we actually do have it. When we treat others with kindness, we are more inclined to feel kindly towards them. The requirement of Teshuvah is to leave the paths of our hearts open to the workings of forgiveness, and then let life take its course, remembering our own regrettable acts, and our own repeated need to return to the right way. This place, too, becomes familiar ground, and we find ourselves muttering, ‘We have been here before.’
In his famous ‘Four Quartets’ the poet TS Eliot says this:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Eliot was reflecting on the era that had ended, and the era that began in England at the close of the second world war. There was surely no returning to the colonial privilege of the former British empire; some new order would necessarily arise once the war was over. The end is where we start from. And yet, England would still be England, even though its citizens would see it differently, just as the returning soldiers would bring a different vision with them from the field of battle. We arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.
It is the same every autumn, as summer wanes, and the ram’s horn calls the Jewish community to contemplate the year past and the year to come. The seasons turn; we have been here before, counting down the days until the first frost. And yes, and we have been *here* before, too, measuring the days we have lived against the ideals we aspire to, recognizing the ways in which we fall short of our promises, to each other and to ourselves. Each year, we make an end, and a beginning; the end is where we start from, acknowledging what was flawed and wrong-headed in our actions, seeking reconciliation and forgiveness for the harm we have done, confessing the finitude of our humanity, and the humanity of our finitude, seeking the wisdom of teshuvah and the gift of a new beginning. We have been here before, we murmur – of course we have, and our ancestors before us; we are neither the first nor the last to reach for a way of life more abundant and more noble than we can easily achieve. We are certainly losers – you and me and every other human being on this planet, The Donald included – losers in the contest of perfection, self-righteousness, and ego-pampering, for only by such loss are we admitted to the authentic human race. Winners Only World is a feverish fantasy; a product of our cultural delirium; the world in which we actually live and move and have our being is Losers Only. And it is from that place that we are called to respond to those who seek our forgiveness, who would be reconciled with us. We are forever finding ourselves here again, and yet again, no matter where our adventures and accomplishments take us, once more at the end that is also a beginning — of a new year, of the rest of your life. We arrive at the place where we started, where we start anew, and know it as if for the first time.
The beginning of autumn is at hand; this week comes the autumnal equinox, on the day of atonement itself, dark and light balance, as we turn the corner toward the gathering cold. The leaves will come down again — as they always do, as Frost reminds us — returning to the earth, murmuring among themselves, ‘We have been here before.’ Their successors will be back, come spring; we know that. But for this moment, they must let go, descend into darkness, dissolution and decay. It can be a hard world, this Losers Only planet, forever calling us to let go of pride and privilege and our striving to be special, demanding that we recognize our finitude and own our failures; embrace teshuvah and turn again to the path of faithfulness to our highest values. It’s a challenge, beginning over and over again like this; not so flattering, never easy. But however it is in some other world, we know that this is the way in ours.
Will you stand and sing with me?
Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
September 20, 2015