תשובה / Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.
That’s a riff off of a famous phrase. Originally the teaching was that forgiveness is letting go of the dream of a better past. Depending on who you ask, it either comes from the actor Lily Tomlin, or from noted Jewish-Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfeld.
Either way, I think it’s equally true of teshuvah. An essential part of teshuvah, of re/turning ourselves in the right direction again, is letting go of wishing that the past had been different.
If only I’d taken that job…
If only I hadn’t hurt her feelings…
If only I’d married someone different…
If only I’d known then what I know now…
We all fall into the habit of wishing that things had been different. We tell ourselves stories about how much better life might be if we had made different choices, or if we hadn’t been dealt a particular hand of cards.
The human mind loves to tell stories. We tell ourselves stories about the past; we tell ourselves stories about the future. I do this all the time! Sometimes it’s as though I am listening, in my mind, to the voiceover narration of the book of my life. “She stood at the Torah reading table in her beloved small synagogue, reading aloud the words of the sermon she had written and rewritten all August long…”
There’s nothing wrong with the mind telling stories. That’s what it was designed to do. We are meaning-making machines. We take in life experience and our minds strive to make meaning from them. But it’s easy to get so caught-up in the stories that we lose sight of the present moment. And it’s easy to get so attached to our stories that we get stuck in them.
Who am I, really? If I set aside all of my “if onlies,” what am I left with? If I set aside my stories about who I used to be, and my stories about who I might become, who am I right now?
Yom Kippur asks us to look inside and answer that question. Who am I right now? Who do I want to be, and where have I fallen short? And am I willing to let go of my fantasies about how if only something had gone differently, I would be in a better place than I am today?
It’s not an easy question to ask. Not if we ask it with our whole hearts, with no sacred cows, with everything on the table for examination.
Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.
It is human to hold tightly to old narratives and old resentments. We tell ourselves stories — maybe about how a parent didn’t love us enough, or a spouse let us down, or that teacher who was supposed to care about us turned out not to give a damn, or that person who we admired let us down.
Sometimes telling ourselves these stories can be a healing technique, because we can write the next chapter. “It felt like my parent didn’t love me, but I’ve learned how to love myself, and now I feel whole.” The stories become springboards to a better future.
And sometimes telling ourselves these stories can be a way of getting stuck. We never write the next chapter because we’re too caught-up in the last chapter. “I’ve never forgotten that thing he said to me. It’s like shrapnel, the wound won’t heal.” Or “The minute I said those words I wanted to take them back, but I couldn’t, and I’ve never been able to forgive myself.”
The stories we tell ourselves about who we’ve been, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, become self-fulfilling prophecies. Every time we retell them, literally or subconsciously, we reinscribe them on our hearts. And then we get trapped in the grooves we ourselves have carved, which become like canyons with walls stretching up toward the heavens.
Yom Kippur asks us to notice the stories we habitually tell ourselves… and then to recognize that sometimes those stories don’t serve us, and to let those stories go.
Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.
Accept for the moment that the past can’t be changed. Whatever we did in the last year, we can’t un-do. Whatever we did five years ago, ten years ago, fifty years ago, we can’t un-do.
And whatever was done to us: yesterday, a year ago, ten years ago — we can’t undo.
We have control over exactly one thing: how we respond to this moment. And to this moment. And to this moment.
I mentioned Jack Kornfield earlier. Here’s a quote:
I’ll tell you a story. A reporter was asking the Dalai Lama on his recent visit to Washington, “You have written this book, ‘The Art of Happiness,’ which was on the best-seller list for two years — could you please tell me and my readers about the happiest moment of your life?” And the Dalai Lama smiled and said, “I think now!”
Happiness isn’t about getting something in the future. Happiness is the capacity to open the heart and eyes and spirit and be where we are and find happiness in the midst of it. Even in the place of difficulty, there is a kind of happiness that comes if we’ve been compassionate, that can help us through it. So it’s different than pleasure, and it’s different than chasing after something.
Happiness, says the Dalai Lama, is the capacity to open the heart and eyes and spirit and be where we are and find happiness in the midst of it.
On a day when everything is going right, that may be easy. But we all have days when everything isn’t going right. Days when sickness, or grief, or fear, take center stage. How can we learn to seek the happiness to be found even in the midst of sorrow or difficulty?
Even on a good day, reaching the version of happiness described by Jack Kornfeld can be challenging. Opening my heart, my eyes, and my spirit to where I am requires recognizing my flaws, my mistakes, the choices I made which I might wish now that I hadn’t made. And it requires recognizing the choices other people made which I might wish now that they hadn’t made. And it also requires noticing the stories I habitually tell myself about those choices, and discerning when those stories are healthy for me and when they are holding me back.
One of the best tools I know for cultivating the kind of happiness that Jack Kornfeld is describing is teshuvah — repentance and return. The first step in teshuvah is opening our hearts, our eyes, and our spirits to who and where we actually are. And then teshuvah calls us to open our hands and let go. Let go of our mistakes. Let go of other people’s mistakes. Let go of our resentments. Let go of the old stories which no longer serve us.
I’ve never flown in a hot air balloon, but I have seen them ranged across the sky, soaring and majestic and beautiful. I like to imagine that the soul is like a hot air balloon. As we discard all of our old stuff, all of those stones which have been weighing us down, our spirits cannot help but rise.
Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past.
One of my teachers in this work is my dear colleague and friend Randall Miller, with whom I am blessed to be leading High Holiday worship at CBI again this year.
Some of you may have had the experience of asking Randall, “How ya doing?”
His answer is always the same: “Never better!”
One day this summer, hanging out with Randall at a Jewish Renewal gathering in West Chester, PA, I told Randall how much I admire the fact that this is always his answer.
In return, he told me a story. He had a friend many years ago who used to give this answer. People were dubious: how can the answer always be “never better”? And that friend of Randall’s challenged them to try it for a week and see what would happen. So for one week, any time anyone said “how are you?” Randall made a point of answering “never better!”
He discovered, he told me, that as a result people reacted to him in a very particular way. People smiled at him more. They seemed happier. Their own burdens seemed inexplicably lightened by his response. So he decided to keep the response. He’s been saying it now for thirty years.
If I took on the practice of saying “never better,” I would be saying: no matter what’s going on right now, no matter what I’m feeling, I know that God is at the heart of things; that good is at the heart of things; that love is at the heart of things.
One of the things I love about hanging out with religious Jews is that when someone asks “how are you?” the answer is likely to be “Baruch Hashem, I’m good.” Baruch Hashem means “Bless God,” but colloquially it’s used the way that we in English might say “Thank God.” How are you? Thank God. How is your mom doing? Thank God. I know there was a meeting you were worried about, how are you feeling about it these days? Thank God.
I love the practice of responding to the question “how are you” with “thank God.” Because in truth, there is almost always a negative answer one could offer to that question. To be sure, there is value in being able to speak the name of what’s broken and what hurts:
How am I? There’s something making me sad.
How am I? A loved one is in dire straits and I am grieving.
How am I? I made a mistake and I can’t unmake it.
And yet there’s also almost always a potential positive answer to that question, too:
How am I? Marinating in gratitude.
How am I? I’m grateful for the presence of my loved one in my life.
How am I? I screwed up, but there’s always tomorrow. Baruch Hashem.
I’m not advocating suppressing what hurts, or pretending that it isn’t there. But I have found that my life shifts when I am able to face what is difficult, and then to make the existential turn of seeking the blessing even in a difficult experience, the moment of sweetness even in a difficult day.
Another way of saying “existential turn,” of course, is the Hebrew teshuvah. In order to answer “never better,” or “baruch Hashem / thank God,” I have to be willing to make teshuvah and let go of my if-onlies. To let go of the dream of a better past. To work with the past I actually have, and the present I actually have. To stop wishing that things had been different, and instead to move forward from where things are.
That’s the work of Yom Kippur. Over the 25 hours between the start of Kol Nidre and the end of Ne’ilah, we are given an incredible opportunity. We are given this one night and this one day to dedicate to the work of opening our eyes and letting go.
Who am I, really? Who am I when I let go of the narratives about how things might have been different? Can I let go of my own mistakes — and, maybe more difficult, can I let go of the mistakes I think other people have made — in order to stand before God without excuses and without pretense?
Join me in spending the next 24 hours doing this work. Join me in looking deeply at the stories we habitually tell about ourselves, and letting some of those old stories go. Let Yom Kippur serve as a mirror into which you can gaze.
Teshuvah is letting go of the dream of a better past. May Yom Kippur facilitate our journey into this holy letting-go. And as we discard our old ballast over the next 24 hours, may our spirits soar.