Unburdening from this Old Self on Yom Kippur

Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash

In the past, I’ve observed Yom Kippur with strict fasting and prayers. And to be honest, I got a lot out of it. I felt the mystical closeness of G-d, and the highlighting of our relationship played out in my hunger throughout the day. The experience set the tone for a spiritual year to come. But over time, the feeling of closeness faded, and it become obvious to me again that such a relationship requires constant vigilance to maintain.

This year I decided to go modern.

Life Coaching Appointment: 10am

Perhaps a sacrilege by some standards, I scheduled a life coaching session for the middle of the morning. I’m (always?) in the process of re-evaluating my life’s direction, and wanted to call in an expert for a little guidance this time. While the timing was largely coincidental—given that my coach isn’t Jewish and didn’t seem to even realize there was a holiday on the day he suggested—I took the synchronicity of both these events as something I should play along with, and I booked him.

The main issue I’ve been bringing to coaching is my perceived chronic lack of confidence and self-esteem. While coaching doesn’t lend itself to pity party story-telling or getting caught up in the personal narratives we’ve built around our problems, after this session, the narrative became quite clear to me, and I feel like I am finally feeling the freedom to let it go.

You see, when I was about ten years old, my grade school class went on a field trip to one of these day camps for kids where they have lots of activities planned that let us run around and generally have fun outside. There were obstacle courses, a petting zoo, a zip-line, and more. While everyone else eagerly anticipated the trip, I was anxious, primarily because it was a new school for me and I still didn’t have any close friends who I knew I’d get to spend the day with. As such, I got assigned randomly to a group with kids I didn’t particularly know and who didn’t seem to want me getting in on their group fun.

Still, all this was more or less okay and easy to get over—that is, until we hit our very first obstacle course. It was a tall wooden A-frame where one side was completely flat, while the other had steps leading down. Our mission was to help one another over the completely flat side. And it was there that I spectacularly failed.

I couldn’t get over. Or, more correctly, as a group of kids, we weren’t able to get me over. I had some self-awareness at the time that I was chubbier than everyone else at this school, but this was the first time I remember it being so obvious to me and them. It was the first time I felt fat. And with my failure, I felt my body was to blame. I felt pathetic, I felt hopeless, I felt worthless. For the rest of the day, I felt like dead weight for this team that seemed perfect without me. I began to internalize that I was a failure, and that everyone else was capable of succeeding where I was not, that I might even be holding everyone else back.

The other memory I have of that day is one of the girls in our group kicking a rock at me. I felt so low that I actually apologized to her after she hit me.

Emotional Memory in Patterns

Writing it out even reveals more parallels in my adult life—more self-identifying as a failure, more apologizing to people who hurt me, more internalizing that others just are more successful than I ever will be, more shutting down, more compensating for all these flaws, and more. The emotional hurt has remained.

In my teens and twenties, I knew the weight of these memories, but I latched onto the cosmetic identities around them first. The kids at my new school were all liberal and mostly upper middle class. They were thin, heterosexual, and able-bodied. Where they were religious, it was not a significant part of their lives—at least not in the ways religion functioned for me. They wore new, expensive clothes all the time, and their lunches were full of healthy, nutritious foods—never sodas, and never processed foods marketed towards kids.

On the other hand, I was fat. I’d experienced a disability that limited my physical activity for half my life at that point. I was keenly aware of my own gendered failings to be ‘man enough’ already, and I suspected too that I might be gay or bi, but lacked the language or understanding to define it. I came from a working class, conservative Christian family, where church was a life-or-eternal-damnation big deal. My clothes were secondhand or homemade, and my lunches always included a canned soda, something processed, and a sugary dessert. I can’t recall fresh veggies ever being a snack for me. Their parents all owned houses, but I’d grown up in an apartment, and we had only just moved into a house months before I started at this school.

Those ‘identities’ mattered at times. They were the reasons I was teased and that other kids scooted their chairs away from me or laughed at me alongside the teacher.

When I couldn’t get over the A-frame, the divide between me and the other kids seemed to be the divide between all these different life experiences, and my failure was the innate failure—the innate worthlessness—of all the ‘identities’ I embodied. Whereas earlier in life I had been teased too, this was the first time I didn’t bounce back and brush it off immediately. The field trip was devastating to me.

But I wouldn’t let the other kids see me cry. I wouldn’t even let my parents see me cry when I got home that day. And if you know me, you know I still have trouble crying today, even when I’m experiencing intense emotions.

Distance is Always the Place to Rediscover G-d

This is a piece about Yom Kippur though. And Yom Kippur is all about repentance.

Yesterday I learned that I needed to repent to my younger self. All this time I’ve been carrying him and his tears close to my chest, and we’ve never once set down that emotional baggage and allowed ourselves to live free from it. I’m older now, and I need to tell him that it’s going to be okay. I need to tell myself that, and I need to forgive myself for not accepting it sooner.

There are going to be times in all of our lives where we are teased and hurt, and when we fail at the tasks set out before us. Sometimes all these circumstances will be unfair and stacked against us to reinforce our failure and to try and trick us into internalizing defeat. There will be people who seem to have it made with whatever they put their minds to, and some of them will even come from generations upon generations of other people with the same kind of luck. Sometimes we will be the winners. Sometimes we will be the envy of everyone around us. And other times we will feel like absolute trash because we couldn’t climb over a wooden pallet when we were ten years old.

These experiences and all the differences in identity and life quality that make them up are part of what makes us human in this era. They set us apart from the infinite perfection of G-d, and make the distance between this world and the formless all the more apparent. They hurt and give us reason to grieve the absence of beauty, ease, and exaltation, so that we might long for and seek reunification with G-d again. They inspire countless rituals, periods of fasting, and the vocabulary of our prayers all trying to teach us this pathway through the Abyss, this teshuvah—this return out of perpetual misery and back to the light of G-d.

To borrow a phrase from Gary Paul Nabhan, the desert smells like rain. The words of G-d’s creation are everywhere in the distance She has made to experience the material in. We are surrounded by angels in all our times of need, and the progress of life is always elevation, always redemption, always the infinite sound of G-d shattering the illusion of all that divides and tries to scar us.

This season is all about seeking to repair the ways we experience separation. But it occurred to me yesterday: how am I to repent to G-d and how am I to make room for Her in the temple of my life this year or in years to come if I am so full of these childhood burdens?

My atonement begins with freedom from the pain that keeps us distant. I am choosing to let go. I am choosing to meditate on G-d. G’mar Chatima Tova, readers. Have a blessed and meaningful holiday.


Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to info@pat-mosley.com

JudaismPat Mosley