As we beat our fists into our chests in prayer during the Vidui (the confessional portion of the service composed of the Ashamnu and Al Chait), we declare our sins and implore God for forgiveness. We’ve behaved evilly, we’ve lied, we’ve wantonly transgressed, we’ve gone astray, we’ve led others astray. The physical sensation of banging a closed fist into our chest to open our hearts to God is one of the most mindful prayers I’ve encountered. Instead of zoning out (for some of us) in a litany of prayers of supplication, the jarring physicality of the gesture grounds us in the present. Some hours later, we’re out of services with the shofar ringing in our ears, and seemingly well on our way to being in the Book of Life. Except, thump thump thump—something still rattles us.
“God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won’t,” states Alfred Korzybski, famous for his studies of engineering, semantics, and yes, the nervous system. In an essence, argues Korzybski, our limits of language and knowledge, as well as sense of self, are limited by our nervous systems. If you have ever lived with, or currently live with, a mental health diagnosis, chances are you understand how incapacitating a nervous center can be. Last year, a terrible thought emerged amidst poundings: has my mental health made me sin, even unintentionally? Do others forgive me? Mostly, can I forgive myself?
Working in the sphere of accessible technology and disability advocacy at Accessibility Partners, I’ve seen firsthand how disability is championed, as it should be. Labels are for jars, not people. Nothing about us, without us. I love these slogans. But I also love the audacious honesty from Timothy Craft in the Rooted in Rights blog, I Celebrate Disability Pride, But Am I Really Proud of My Mental Illness? He simply states, amidst a sea of advocacy weeks, ribbons, and marches: “The harsh truth is that I’m not proud… yet. It is terribly difficult to look at my mental illness as part of my identity and come away feeling positive”.
Craft hits the nail on the head and bangs the fist right into the chest. I’m proud that Judaism has evolved, albeit slowly, on perceptions of mental health, addiction, and on-going efforts at erasure of the stigma of treatment. It wasn’t too far ago in our history that victims of suicide could not be buried in Jewish cemeteries. We’re the religion that brought you Freud and Maslow. Attitudes are shifting, workplaces are becoming more accommodating, friends and family are more patient and understanding, and yet…where are individuals with forgiveness of themselves?
Mental illness isn’t neat and tidy to live with. When an individual is on their path to recovery, whether that journey is hours or years in duration, there’s a component of shame. What did I do to be like this? I can’t believe I responded like “that” in the moment. I deserve this…the list of ruminations goes on and on. They don’t call it Jewish guilt for nothing. The question I struggle with is: Why do people feel guilty for something that isn’t their fault? It becomes a circuitous logic of what controls our thoughts and our actions. I know I didn’t “ask” for this diagnosis, but yet I’m the one steering the ship.
I had a friend in college share that it wasn’t his fault he was a jerk to women, he came from a broken home with divorced parents. That didn’t feel right—a potentially traumatic childhood doesn’t just give one a get out of jail free card to act boorishly. However, how responsible is another for yelling at a friend or family when they haven’t learned the proper skills to cope with bipolar disorder?
This is an issue that I and so many struggle with and gives us a lot to think about in the pews as we pray. We’re so (relatively) easy to forgive others, but why can’t we forgive ourselves for what others forgive in us? This Rosh Hashanah, I wish to channel just a tiny bit of Craft’s introspection and realize that it’s okay not to be proud of my diagnosis but accept it as the challenging burden it is. Humans are a work in progress, and mental illness has quite a few derailments and detours on that journey. That shame and embarrassment we have for moments when we were not our best selves is not forever written in the Book of Life. Rather, as we spend the entire days of the year, not just the Days of Awe, we can begin the process to see ourselves as worthy of our own forgiveness.
Sharon Rosenblatt is an accessibility professional and advocate working to improve the overall web experience by a user with disabilities. With her tendency to be ‘hands on’, Sharon feels that accessibility is a human right, and not a ‘nice to have’. She has been a part of the Accessibility Partners team for the past seven years, and specializes in document remediation and web/software compliance testing. Her efforts have enabled developers and manufacturers to see the tremendous potential that accessibility has not just for users with disabilities, but of all abilities.