Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Day of Atonement

Today marks Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. It is, for want of a better metaphor, a day of soul-cleansing, when a Jew is supposed to make up for any slights and insults committed against his neighbors by asking their forgiveness.

This is a good tradition to have, and it appears in nearly every major religion. Catholics have monthly confessions, Protestants believe in prayer at night to ask God's forgiveness...Christianity could take a page from Judaism here...Islam has the tawbah, and in fact discourages public confession of sin, altho it does permit the sinner to recompense the offended. Buddhism is unusual in that it is the offended that initiates the act of forgiveness to allow the offender to atone for it.

In all circumstances, atonement requires humility. It requires letting go of one's exceptionalism, if only for a moment, and acknowledging that one is as mortal as anyone else and prone to mistakes, then asking forgiveness for those mistakes. One puts one's soul in another's hands. There are few experiences more equalizing in the human condition than an apology.

As it is Yom Kippur, I want to focus on the Jewish tradition because there's a lesson to be learned here. The faith calls for making the body uncomfortable on Yom Kippur: no food, no bathing, no (leather) shoes -- altho I'm not sure how they view sneakers -- no perfumes or lotions, no sex.

By making the body uncomfortable, the thinking is, the soul becomes uncomfortable, too. The pain one has caused others then registers viscerally in this discomfort. The only way to ease the soul is to unburden it, to cleanse the soul.

I think it's time for America to come to this concept. I think a national day of atonement, both among the citizens as well as across borders, is in order.

America is an exceptional nation, this has long been believed here and in many ways, we are. We have abundant natural resources, safe borders, plentiful land, beautiful landscapes, mostly moderate weather, and have been a beacon of freedom to people around the world.

We are also an exceptionally evil nation. We lord it over everyone else that our way is the best way, the one true way, like Scientologists in a subway stall. Our culture, both the good but more importantly the bad, has infused itself globally -- to the point where more Iranians know who is running for President than Americans. When we can, we position troops to enforce our ideas of power.

Force is not power, by the way. Force is a display of weakness, of acknowledging that you do not have control of a situation. Children use force. Adults use power. If you don't believe me, try not doing your job for a week or so. Your boss isn't going to call in the Seventh Fleet.

For a brief shining moment in world history, we were literally the last nation on earth: Europe was rebuilding from World War II, Russia and China were emerging from internal revolts, Japan was scorched earth, India was a third world nation...only America had an economy poised to take advantage of the post-war expansion and rebuilding.

You know the old saw about being born on third base, thinking you hit a triple? While that's not entirely true of America, it's not that far from true. But for an ocean, we would easily have been England or France. And given that Germany had made such advances in rocket technology as it had, we were maybe a year out from being England.

But for the pairing of a great war and a Great Depression, we would have lingered in recession for nearly a decade longer. Public works were great programs (and we could use those about now, too) but it was the ramp up for war that kicked the economy into gear.

But for our natural resources, we would have had trouble keeping up with our needs.

We were able to exert power across the globe because other nations needed our goods, our products, our services, our resources. We were, quite literally, the Wal-Mart of the world, where you could buy anything, and we forced a lot of other outlets off the page for a while. When that started to dry up, we started throwing our weight around the world.

We're a lucky country, maybe even a blessed country in that we have such bounties, but that's no reason to believe we are somehow divinity. Yet, all too frequently, we act that way. We need a dose, a large dose, of humility.

Look at our Presidential candidates, for instance: how many of them have said "God told me to run"?

Indeed, one, Scott Walker, compared himself to Jesus, saying that he was called to lead by dropping out of the race.

He died for your sins, Ben Carson.

Is it not the height of arrogance to claim that a higher power sought you and only you out and spoke to you and only you about the state of the union? Wouldn't we rather have a President who listened to the people and not the voices inside his own head?

Yet, this is the face we wish to present to the world: the last humble man to sit in the Oval Office was Jimmy Carter -- and saying he's humble is by comparison to the others only. We revel in egoism. We bathe in it. And then when that President does anything to even slightly acknowledge that other nations might be in the same league as America, at least a loud cacophonous portion of us bang empty oil drums and rattle cans with stones about "selling us out".

This is why we have troops in nearly every nation on the planet, enforcing our imperial economic hegemony. We lead not by influence, but by force.

There are 7.5 billion people on this planet of which American make up about 4%. We have to live with these people, too. What we do affects them, and what they do certainly affects us, else why is there a refugee crisis from Syria? From Mexico and Central America? Why does our stock market get crushed anytime China's catches a cold?

America likes to think of itself as the CEO of Planet Earth, Inc. Maybe it's time we picked up a bucket and mop and saw things from the other side.