It is too easy to find fault in others. How can we be more honest with ourselves so that we can make corrections to our decisions?
This Yom Kippur, I have been thinking a lot about self-deception and the ways we can avoid it. This train of thought began with the Penn State sex abuse scandal. My teenage son and I spent many hours discussing this case. We tried to understand how people make decisions, how we choose to “see” some things and not others, and how these decisions impact our own lives and the lives of others.
For me, the take away is this: it is too easy to find fault in others. It is comfortable to get self-righteous and to think “I would never make a bad decision like that.” But I just don’t think that is true. How can we be more honest with ourselves so that we can make corrections to our decisions?
If we take the work of Yom Kippur seriously, we have a yearly opportunity to bring our best selves back into focus. We can consider the times when we engaged in self-deception, and make corrections before we hurt ourselves and others. We can be helped in this work by two tools that are organic to this season: heshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting), and teshuvah (turning back toward ourselves), which are themes of the High Holy Days and their essential actions.
Engaging in heshbon ha-nefesh is best done as a concrete, embodied practice. It is not about assessing whether you are a ‘good’ person or not. Rather, heshbon ha-nefesh requires sitting down for an honest accounting. We need to figure out what we owe our best selves, so that we can live up to our own greatest potential. That might mean making columns and literally adding things up—mistakes we made, people we hurt, decisions we would like to change. It might mean finding a partner and talking things through, having honest discussions about our lives and the improvements we think we should make. Whatever the particular practice, heshbon ha-nefesh is about seriously and uncomfortably taking stock.
Teshuvah is a different, but complimentary, process. The term itself is rich, evocative and full of potential meanings. Some think of it as repentance and some use the more literal translations of “turning” or “returning.” For some people teshuvah means systemic action, for others it refers to a more existential concept.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook writes “teshuvah lives in the heart, it stands ready to forgive even before we do harm.” The loving acceptance portrayed in Rav Kook’s understanding of teshuvah provides a fertile environment for doing heshbon ha-nefesh. But this is not an entirely passive embrace. In order to really do teshuvah, we need to soften our hearts so that we can touch the teshuvah—or love—that Rav Kook tells us always resides there. If we can do that, our love for ourselves, for each other, and for the world will help us do the work required to be honest with ourselves and avoid causing harm to others. Tragedies like Penn State don’t have to happen. Ideally, we will catch ourselves in the act of self-deception, so that we can take action. We can “see” with a clear eye, and not turn away.