I am far from a religious person, but have long admired the list of sins Jews own up to in their prayers on Yom Kippur. It is eye-opening to consider that all have in the course of a year committed many, probably most and perhaps even every one of those transgressions.
Certainly we have slandered and scoffed. Robbery and abomination are iffier but plausible if defined a certain way, even for those who do not serve in the government. Definitely we have been obstinate, now more than ever in the Age of Great Mulishness. But I am puzzled by some omissions. I’m no Jewish scholar and dare recommend no amendments. I’m just noting that we also commit hubris, thoughtlessness and reckless disregard.
Think of the person sitting in a car, engine running and lights on, checking phone and adjusting hair as they signal with wagging finger that they are not about to vacate the precious parking space. In fact they surely are, and in the refusal to hurry even a little while the line of cars waiting piles up, they show reckless disregard.
Or those responsible for litter left behind on the beach, garbage strewn about the street, and cigarette butts on the sidewalk. They probably don’t even think there is a defense for this. They simply don’t care, and likely do not think.
Of course, making these pronouncements can seem hubristic. And hubris is most fascinating, because it is so sad.
What have any of us to be hubristic about? We know little about the most important things — like what is life. We can make a billion and be killed an instant later by the next falling tree. An asteroid could knock our planet off course and turn us into blocks of ice.
Yet we commit it all the time. Some have accused even me of it, which perhaps the reader finds unbelievable. I do try to be aware, and I have noticed something strange: when I’m at hubristic heights, a magical force with a developed sense of humor will instantly take care to bring me crashing down.
For this reason when wishing a sports team well I avoid all confidence. The Eagles could be up by four touchdowns with three minutes to go and I will still fear a comeback by the forces of evil. Such improbabilities tend to happen when I am watching, so I must be vigilant. The magical force is strong, and it hates it when I show hubris.
It took me a while to learn. Years ago I was in a New York bistro boasting to a friend about a grand success. My friend seemed interested and happy for me and generously forgiving of my being pleased with myself to an undignified degree. It was at this moment that I began to choke on a piece of gourmet falefel, compelling my robust friend to try to bounce the particle out by hurling me around in front of a shocked Manhattan crowd. The episode ended at the hospital with a Knicks game missed, x-rays carried out, and doctors explaining about globus phalyngis, which is the phantom sensation of an obstruction in one’s throat.
From many, one: society is suspect of collective hubris at all times.
We act as if what is now is what was always meant to be. We make our plans as if what’s to come is predictable somehow. We pretend things are stable and close to permanent. I think it’s tied to fear. We fear change because the coming change is death. It is literally the only thing we can confidently predict, and we don’t even know what it is.
This Yom Kippur I shall reflect on the paradox of life. We are worlds unto ourselves, however piggish we may be. But we are also little cogs in an unfathomable machine.
We are lucky if we live 80 years. We have no idea what follows and only some of what came before. The pace of change makes any confidence absurd.
One average lifetime ago there were no computers, no Internet, no mobile phones and basically no TV (also no Israel and no Holocaust). Two lifetimes ago there was no aviation, no cars, no radio, rampant slavery and no democracy, because nowhere were women allowed to vote. Go back a few more and find plagues and Inquisitions and no United States. Go back 25, and you are in the time of Jesus and the Roman empire.
If you believe the Bible it takes only 72 lifetimes to go back to Creation. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.” The science is suspect but the symbolism strong. Perhaps, upon reflection, not all that much has changed.