Tears stream down cheeks, and best friends surround the mourner. Be it for a break up, a destroyed curling iron, or a bombed exam, the consolers perform the time-honored deed of drying tears and speaking words of comfort. Having many times been in this situation, I salute these young men and women for their role in restoring joy to a presumably destroyed night (or day, weekend, or week). It is, however, their words of comfort that disturb me.
Many times have I heard and seen the phrases “you are perfect” and “never change.” In so many popular songs do we hear lyrics like “I’m hoping you will never change — don’t ever change,” (Never Change, by Dear Juliet) by “baby, I’m perfect — you’re perfect” (Perfect, by One Direction) or “you are perfect, perfect to me,” (Perfect, by P!nk) but what are these lyrics offering my generation? A call to permanently accept ourselves as we are in the present moment? Or a call to change?
It’s a very difficult balance to strike. On the one hand, we must accept ourselves as we are. At risk of sounding cliche, it is imperative for the individual (particularly the young one) to see in him/herself their positive attributes … but it is also critical to remember the negative ones. Are we perfect if we are impatient? Should we “never change” if we are unkind? Do we accept ourselves if we are irresponsible? With songs that tell us that, no matter what, we are perfect and that we should never, ever change — why would we ever want to?
As we approach Yom Kippur, we, as mortal, fallible beings, are reminded of our imperfections and faults. We seek forgiveness from those whom we’ve hurt, and we begin on the path of teshuva (repentance). Maimonides, known to many as Rambam, enumerated four steps to teshuva:
- Recognizing and ceasing from performing a destructive action;
- Verbally admitting the action;
- Regretting and reflecting on the negative effects of your action;
- Plan and resolve to never repeat the action.
How can we, a group of people told repeatedly in popular culture that we are perfect, properly take up a process of teshuva that requires us to — dare I say it? — change?
Instead of telling each other to “never change,” in the New Year, we must say aloud where we could improve. Instead of saying that “you are perfect,” we should ask others how we’ve hurt them, and resolve to never do so again. As young people, it is incumbent upon us to begin self-improvement early, so that as many people as possible encounter “the best version of ourselves.”
That’s it: rather than claiming to be perfect or exhorting our friends to “never change,” we should seek, at every moment, to be the best version of ourselves and be in a constant process of teshuva, where we examine our actions and take it upon our souls and minds to refine them for the benefit of everyone around us.
Rambam’s four steps to repentance are not at odds with self-acceptance; rather, they encourage a healthy attitude toward acceptance of the good and rejection of the bad. Teshuva is the introspection we need to lead lives as mortals, who are not perfect, but who are blessed with the capability to try.
I am looking forward to a New Year where we can enjoy our always-improving personas and know that we are undergoing a life of never-ending self-betterment. May you always present the best version of your soul to all, and may you always be changing for the good.