Today is the Jewish New Year and I have just come back from services at my temple. While this holy day carries many challenging thoughts, the primary one that I took away was t’shuvah. The Hebrew word is most often equated with “repentance,” but its roots are closer to the meaning of “return.” But return to what? One of the best responses to this can be found in a song using the words of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Recorded by many voices, it also is reprinted in the prayer book we use.
Return again, return again, return to the Land of your Soul.
Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born and reborn again.
In it, I hear a plea for living authentically, for owning who you are and what you do, for being responsible. I have never believed that souls exist, but I do find the word is an apt metaphor for some inner being (also a metaphor) that is unique and belongs only to me—a real, distinct human being. It is whatever is left when you strip off the veneer of beliefs and behaviors that can be traced to my following what I believe the world out there is telling me to do.
It has special meaning for me because of my commitment to bring flourishing forth in the world. Flourishing, as those who have read this blog or my books, is a possibility that, under the right circumstances, may emerge from living authentically. Flourishing is a quality of living that may be felt by someone when they are taking care of whatever is present to them, and have been doing that for a while. It comes out of a connectedness to the world.
Most of the time we are not so connected and are acting out of the collected body of rules that we have extracted from our experience over our lives right up to the moment, and have embodied them in our brain. We are doing whatever somebody or some thing out there says we should be doing. To keep the distinction clear, this mode is often called inauthentic or undifferentiated. It is as important and relevant as the other mode. Human existence incorporates both, but within some balanced proportionality.
The liturgy of the season and the words of the poem say that the balance has been lost and that we need to do something about it. Using other arguments, I have been writing in this vein for quite some time. It is not only that individuals are lacking authenticity, but also society itself has set up the rules that favor such behavior. As individuals, no one alone has much power to change the societal structure, but I do believe that each has some control over the switch-yard that puts us on one or the other of these tracks. And that is where return comes in. It is a call to switch to the authentic path to who I am, to what I am, and to where I am present.
As newborns, we have no choice but to be authentic, as we have not yet acquired any guidance from the world. But from the moment we emerge, we begin to learn and accumulate behavioral patterns extracted from our experience. For a while, life is mostly authentic, and signs of pure joy or glee abound. But by the time we are adults, we are largely run by the assemblage of such acquired knowledge. The authentic “I,” being bombarded with so many rules about how to interpret the world outside and act accordingly, has a hard time gaining access to the control room.
If this discussion so far sounds like I am talking as if each of us can act like two different people, that’s correct. I can’t take space here to fully develop my reasons. You can find them in most of the posts I have added over about the past year. I have come to accept the divided brain model of Iain McGilchrist as a valid picture of how the human cognitive system works. The self or “who one is” depends on which hemisphere is control at that moment. The authentic self, connected to and coping with the present world, shows up when the right side is in charge. The inauthentic self, disconnected from the present world and acting out of knowledge extracted from past experience, is the result of control by the left brain.
With this as the background, let me return to the notion of “return.” I mentioned that t’shuvah is also interpreted as repentance, but without any particular sense of what to repent for. My Jewish readers will know that we will be given many specifics during the Yom Kippur services. But for now, everyone can look back and recognize two kinds of situations. One includes all the instances when some rule has been broached. Such rules can range from the laws of the land to the informal, often tacit, rules that govern life in all the institutions we inhabit. I do think it valuable to take stock of one’s behavior in this category and take steps to do better, but I fail to see the need to repent. What’s done has been done. We will be encouraged to do some cleaning up when we return on Yom Kippur, but that is not the same as repentance.
The more difficult cases are those when reflection finds that the authentic self was absent. The difference between the two can be found in the answer to this questions, “Whose rule did I break—mine or one coming from outside?” The above paragraph deals with those attributable to external rules. If it was mine, then it points to times when I failed to act authentically; or, using different words, to times when I departed from being myself. Now, the relevance of “return” should be clear. The authentic me is always there, but can pull a disappearing act at times. We need to return to it every time it is away for any extended periods.
You may ask what is so special about the authentic me. One key comes in its connectedness to the outside world with its contextual richness. This feature enables it to be empathic, an obvious requirement for dealing effectively with others, and for any kind of loving behavior. Even more generally, whatever action is taken will come reflect what McGilchrist calls “betweenness,” an awareness of being a part of the world outside. Selfish behavior is certainly possible, but not necessary as it is when the left side is in control.
The words of the poem/song stress the imperative of return, implying that we have strayed and that there is something to come back to. We do not need to look far to find it; it is always with us, buried inside of us, but often hidden from us. It is not some mysterious soul, but something that has been live as long as the body has. It is the authentic me that emerges with the birth of every child. But as the song tells us it frequently gets lost and must be reborn over and over again.