Happy Anniversary?

26 Sep

Hat and Shades

It’s been a year….Or at least it will be.  By the time I post this piece on my blog, a year will have passed since I was first told I have a tumor in my chest.  This fall will mark other one year anniversaries, as well—a year since I was told the tumor was a cyst, a year since I was told “no, it’s lymphoma,” a year since my biopsy, a year since I was then told “nope, no lymphoma here,” and on, and on, and on.  Indeed, the next twelve months will offer up a full year of first anniversaries, each marking a variety of challenging, terrifying, motivational, and unforgettable moments of my life.  And In a bizarre twist of fate, the first of those coming anniversaries will take place during Rosh Hashanah (September, 26th).

I assume that practically everyone who reads my blog is either a) Jewish or b) friends with a sufficient number of Jews to know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. What non-Jewish readers (and perhaps a few Jews) may not know is that unlike the American New Year’s traditions of going to an overpriced club, drinking to excess, trying desperately to have the perfect evening, and, ultimately, sitting on your couch and watching Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve (well, Ryan Seacrest these days, but the rest is pretty accurate), the Jewish New Year and the month preceding it are a time of intense self-reflection and prayer.  Through these practices, and through the powerful experience of Yom Kippur (a day dedicated to recognizing and seeking forgiveness for our sins in the past year) Jews hope to begin the New Year resolved to become better people—not unlike the New Year’s resolutions we adopt on January 1st but more focused on our souls and less on quitting smoking, losing twenty pounds, giving up cable TV, etc. My kind of holiday, right? After all, I’ve got this self-reflection thing down. The whole point of starting this blog was to report on my seemingly endless self-assessments of my health as well as my spiritual and psychological well-being.

And yet, recently I have spent a lot less time in self-reflection—or at least publically sharing my inner monologue of introspection and self-doubt. Part of that stems from my decision to expand the scope of this blog, which has given me the license to think about a range of topics, from this summer’s awful war in the Middle East to my privileged childhood in Westchester County, New York.  But it has also provided a kind of leave to stop thinking of and writing about my health for a little while. What a relief (for all of us, I’m sure)!

The truth is that for months, now, self-reflection has turned into self-condemnation, as I continually contemplate just how short I’ve fallen of the lofty goals I set for myself when I learned I did not have cancer (that is, the FIRST time I learned I didn’t have cancer….oy!). My mindful eating has become mindless and meaningless. My exercise regimen has dwindled to practically nothing (save for my continued practice of Tai Chi).  My meditation schedule, once something I was very proud of, has fallen from twice a day to twice a week (if I’m lucky!).  I feel dejected, defeated, and just plain bad.  And I am quite certain that this sense of defeat, along with other fears and concerns, has diminished my capacity as a father, a husband, and a human being. One thing is sure, in my quiet moments, the times when I am alone with my thoughts and undistracted by any other task, I heap blame and judgment on myself for my recent failures and wonder if I am capable of even the slightest efforts at self-discipline and self-motivation.  And now comes this anniversary, the first of many in the coming year, AND the Jewish holidays, AND the attendant introspection they demand. Tough times.

Still, the great thing about the High Holidays is the expectation that self-reflection (and even self-criticism) can open a path towards self-improvement. Despite the Jewish predilection for self-loathing and guilt (a broad stereotype that is, simultaneously, unfounded and completely true), at this time of year we are expected to make teshuvah, a word that literally means “return” but is more broadly translated as a kind of repentance and renewal, a “RETURN” to a better, more meaningful, and committed life.  And that time for renewal starts now, one year after I began the most terrifying, yet deeply meaningful, period of my life. I do want to return to the path I laid out for myself last fall, to fill my actions and thoughts with meaning, care, and decency, to become the person I dream of being.

There’s this prayer in the Yom Kippur service that my grandmother (my dad’s mom) always liked, though for the life of me I don’t know why.  It says, in essence, that on Rosh Hashanah, God opens the book of life and death and begins to write down our names (like a very gruesome naughty or nice list).  On Yom Kippur, S/He closes the book. Disturbing, no?  Melodically, it’s a beautiful prayer, and perhaps that’s why it still exists in our modern liturgy, despite its rather simplistic and creepy assessment of the High Holidays’ significance. Still, it poses a challenge to rabbis to explain this prayer to their congregations, and over the years I have listened to several clergy try to make sense of it. Perhaps the most heartening interpretation I’ve heard argues that the prayer speaks of a spiritual, rather than physical, life and a spiritual death.  In other words, at this time of year, through this process of self-reflection, prayer, and repentance we establish our spiritual path for the year—either one of engagement, meaning and life, or one of withdrawal, regret, and a kind of death.  That’s the interpretation that works for me and the one I’ll bring with me into the synagogue. The holidays are my opportunity to choose a life of meaning and spirit, and failing  to make that choice is to experience a kind of death, a frightful and terrible emptiness.  Faced with those two choices, I think my path is clear.

Shana Tova to You and Yours

And As Always…stay tuned.

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