Powerful medicine

Yamim Noraim: A mirror to our hidden self-deception

In Short

Setting aside arrogance and cynicism and engaging in honest introspection is the antidote to the lies we tell ourselves.

Anosognosia is one of the most perplexing mental conditions. The term was first used in 1914 by French neurologist Joseph Babinksy to identify a delusion in which a patient suffering from an illness is unable to understand that he or she is disabled or ill. When confronted with the obviousness of the illness – if they are asked why they are in a hospital, or why they cannot move a limb – patients typically resort to colorful and extremely creative confabulations. 

While some of those confabulations may be quite risible, there’s nothing humorous about this condition. Denying their illness, patients refuse treatment, neglect taking medication and fight with caregivers. Holding to their delusions means very poor quality of life, worsening of symptoms and, eventually, death. 

There’s no known cure for anosognosia except, maybe, a dose of the Yamim Noraim

The High Holy Days assume that we are all sufferers, to different degrees, of this condition. We all tend to deny our individual and collective failings; we create convoluted rationalizations to excuse ourselves and end up attacking those who hold the mirror that would show us our faults. 

Like patients with anosognosia, we are unaware of our delusions. We think that our view of ourselves is the most accurate. After all, who can know me better than I know myself? We spend most of our argumentative power supporting these delusions, instead of considering the evident, often obvious holes in them. Immoral people will tell themselves that they’re fine because they respond to a higher moral calling; a mean person will convince himself that the object of their spite had it coming; every dogmatist will call herself a “critical thinker”; a thief is sure that he’s only taking what he deserves, and only from those who have too much anyway. We all believe ourselves to be fair and open-minded, and we all honestly believe that we always judge ourselves impartially.

The main difference between clinical anosognosia and the one most of us suffer is that the former is generally the result of an external factor – usually a brain injury – and the latter is voluntary. Well, not exactly voluntary. Like the proverbial frog in hot water, we change slowly and without awareness. First, we cross one moral boundary, then another, and little by little we become people that our former selves wouldn’t recognize. 

To be sure, the same happens at the social level. Historian Timothy Snyder describes the descent into fascism and communism as a gradual process in which “we are hit by wave after wave and don’t see the ocean.” Every dictatorial decree they accept becomes a new floor, until one day they denounce their neighbors and think that it’s the right thing to do, completely unaware of how depraved they’ve become. 

The Yamim Noraim can be just another set of days in the calendar, or a unique opportunity to take the antidote. The process of teshuva (critical introspection) asks a terrible question: Will my former self recognize me? What would he say about the person I have become? How horrified would he be about my moral lapses, or the things I tolerate in myself and others? 

This is not about returning to a mythical past. In fact, much of the political dysfunction we experience now is due to the fallacy that we can return to a past that never existed. Rather, the Yamim Noraim offer us a chance to imagine how a purer, less cynical self would evaluate ourselves. Maybe that’s why we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the symbolic anniversary of the creation of Man – because we ask the key question: How did we fill the blank slate we’ve been given when we were created? 

For sure, our past self would be proud of things we’ve achieved, of fears we’ve confronted, of acts of kindness we’ve done and of temptations to which we did not succumb. But in our times of moral relativism, in our golden age of callousness, in our era of intellectual obtuseness and ethical lethargy, we should err on the critical side. After all, during the year we surround ourselves with messages of affirmation, with imprecations to be ourselves, to accept ourselves and to not judge ourselves. For these 10 days, we can take the criticism. For this brief period, we can let ourselves be diagnosed by the truth-telling doctor that still lives inside our hearts.

That is a painful process, but it’s a process full of hope. We can imagine being again the person we were before we crossed that line we should not have been crossed, before we tolerated what we should not have tolerated, before we covered our failings with the insufficient unguent of lies, deception and self-righteousness.

And of course, holding the mirror is not enough. Our tradition sees teshuva as inextricably connected with tefilla (prayer) and tzedakah (acts of justice and charity). First comes the introspection, then the statement of purpose, then the commitment to act. With a wisdom that preannounces modern psychology by a few millennia, Judaism creates a virtuous cycle of awareness, willingness and action. Going back to go forward; dancing a beautiful ballet of past and future, of promise and challenge. Trying to be again who we should have never ceased being, but also daring to be more and better. Realizing that time – and our lives – spiral upwards, always going back and always going up, the same and different. 

In that light, one of the paradoxical phrases of the liturgy starts making sense: “Renew our days like before.” How could it be? If it’s “renew,” then it’s not “like before.” And yet, going back is the only way to change, revisiting our past so as to renew our future. 

We can only do it if, for once, we give our arrogance and self-assuredness a rest. The enormity of the challenge is what makes us call these holidays “Days of Awe”; but if we go through them with courage and honesty, we’ll feel the new year come at us like a reviving breeze, full of all the goodness and beauty that we’re capable of. 

As Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti wrote:

Once in a while one
must pause
contemplate oneself
without glee
examine the past
section by section
stage by stage
tile by tile
without crying lies
but singing the truths.

Shana Tova

Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.