“Hey, how much longer until we arrive?” I had just dozed off for a bit, but as I looked out the window hoping to see the school we were traveling to, all I could see were miles and miles of cornfields. I was in a van sitting next to my close friend Courtney, with whom I had joined the Urbana High School wrestling cheerleaders (“Wrestlettes”) that Fall. I looked down at my black and orange uniform feeling an undeniable sense of pride, and well…..cool. Traveling around the state to cheer on the team (er…..cute boys) was exciting. However, sometimes the away-games were far and I loathed being on the road….especially in Central Illinois where the view was not exactly spectacular.
I stared out the window, watching a plethora of trucks pass us by. Every so often I would catch a driver snoozing in his monster vehicle on the side of the road. Bored, I looked over at the other girls on my squad and blurted out loudly, “Gosh, I would hate to live my life as a truck driver. All you do is drive all day, you’re away from your family, and then you don’t even get to go anywhere exciting if you drive around here!” A quiet hush filled the vehicle, and in a split second I regretted my unintentionally hurtful outburst. “My Dad drives a truck.” I couldn’t even look up at my friend Trena, but could practically taste the leather of the shoe that was in my mouth.
Last weekend I observed the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The holiday has personal significance to my life given that my husband John and I actually met in his family’s synagogue seventeen years ago on Kol Nidre, the night before the holiday. I have always enjoyed how John recalls the evening when we met, when he saw me from a few rows back in the sanctuary. “I was there atoning for my sins and then took one look at Meg and started dreaming up new ones.” Mostly, however, on Yom Kippur I reflect back on the year about things I might regret, such as losing my cool with my kids after a stressful day at work, or the times I committed the true Don’t Hide it Flaunt It sin: judging others.
This past year on Yom Kippur, as I felt my stomach growl from hunger from fasting, our Rabbi had a sermon that prompted me to think about atonement at another level. His story was about a largely white high school sports team that engaged in conduct that was, as far as anyone can tell, innocent in its intent, yet interpreted as racist by an opposing team that was mostly African American. The details of what happened don’t really matter for this piece, and yet the topic lingered with me even days after I enjoyed “breaking the fast” with close family and friends.
The rabbi suggested that we take a moment to atone not only for things we did intentionally, but also those done unintentionally. I had never really considered that I should ask forgiveness for the things I may have inadvertently done or said that were painful to another. Thinking about it more, I realized I had witnessed such things all of the time just by turning on the television and (shamelessly) watching reality television shows. On one recent show, for example, a gay man named Marc overheard his roommate, Denzel, saying insensitive things to his other friend named Keith, mocking the way Marc dressed and his overall demeanor. As it turned out, unbeknownst to the roommate Denzel, Keith’s own Mom was a lesbian. Therefore, unwittingly, Denzel’s insensitivity not only directly hurt Marc, but also Keith. The following day, I watched “The Voice,” a singing competition. One of the men auditioning was attractive and talented, seemingly living an otherwise “perfect” life. However, during an interview leading up to his performance, we learned that the person that inspired him the most was his autistic sister. He mentioned his frustration with how people in his life have talked about or even make fun of people that are different, not knowing about his sister at home. And, on the very same show we learn that a beautiful female singer’s father is a “little person,” as she described it. I thought about her and her father when just the other day I was in the presence of someone standing before an audience making a “short joke” about another, and I couldn’t help but wonder how that comment would have made someone like this singer feel had she been sitting in the room with me.
Although I’m cherry-picking stories from television that I know are edited for their dramatic effect, they represent something on point to me. As I have written previously, there have been times when I reacted inelegantly to well-meaning offers to help me sign my name at a checkout counter or to compliments on my ability to do some simple task. In these instances (although thankfully rare and in the past), I had come across as resentful…. even angry. I am ashamed to say that I have even snapped, with curt responses like, “Why would I need your help?” or “How would you feel if someone asked you for help that you didn’t need?” Although I have certainly written about my need to get over myself, swallow my pride, and be grateful for the well-intentioned stranger, there is no question that their reactions to me or our children can still sting.
But it becomes equally if not more important to control my bitter reactions to people. In other words, I realize that one swift ‘kick in the pants’ by me in the interest of preserving my pride could ultimately mean that that person would think twice before extending himself again to another. Although Yom Kippur has come and gone this year, I’ll carry with me the important lesson– that each of us has the power to unknowingly cause harm to others, committing an unintentional sin. If I am to hope that others will “take a breath” before reacting to me, then it is incumbent upon me to do the same.