Monday, June 6, 2011

The Weiner Saga - what it can teach us about ourselves

Anthony-Weiner-100x100.jpgThere's a lot of online chatter, blogging, tweeting, and more about Anthony Weiner's use of the social network to communicate with women via lewd photo.  If you need an update on the full story, here's a piece in the NYTimes, and another on The Huffington Post.

So, I want to get my 2 cents in? Well, yes and no.  I don't think I have much more to add to what has already been said about the unbecoming behavior, the lying, the damage to Weiner's family (and, particularly, his wife) and friendships, the analysis of his confession, etc. etc.

But I want to look at another aspect of the chatter online.  Because expressing our disgust, our disappointment, and our judgment, while appropriate, is the easy part.  Especially when it involves a public official or celebrity.  The much harder part is to look at our own lives and ask ourselves some of the really tough questions that emerge from stories like these.

Unless you happen to hang with a particularly angelic crowd, how many of us can say that we don't know someone among our friends, our congregation, or community, who has done something deceptive or foolish in their lives?  How many of us can look in the mirror without feeling embarrassment for a poor judgment of the past?  Whether it was behavior while drunk or high, a lie that had consequences that we've never owned up to, an email that should never have been sent, a touch or a kiss that betrayed the trust between committed couples, a full-blown affair or a criminal act ... Weiner can be a painful reminder of our own faux pas, or remind us of the pain caused by a friend or family member who did something to cross the line.

I remember that, as a very young child, perhaps no more than 6 or 7, I had a teacher who supervised a sewing activity with my class each week.  We had learned different stitch styles and were making a bookmark.  One week, I made a mistake.  I was so embarrassed by my mistake that, instead of going to the teacher for assistance, I tried to fix it myself and created a big knot in the middle of my fabric.  Then I panicked.  I thought she'd be furious with me if she saw the mess I'd made instead of getting help when the problem was still small.  So I started to feign sickness right before her class, and my grade teacher would allow me take some time out in the fresh air and miss her class.  After a couple of weeks of this, they caught on.  When the confrontation finally occurred, the teacher was mortified that I'd been too afraid to ask for her assistance;  with one snip of the scissors she removed my knot and helped me get back on track.  We had a great relationship from that point on.

Ok, so its a pretty innocuous example, but I offer it more for symbolic value.  What Weiner did was very human.  He messed up.  Yes, he should examine what created his desire to exhibit such behavior in the first place - that is different from my accidental stitching mistake.  But what followed is where the commonality lies, and is not at all uncommon.  Once we've messed up, we're embarrassed and ashamed. We're fearful of what people will think and say.  We're fearful of the consequences.  And so we do things in a vain attempt to try and control the situation.  This usually involves a lie.  Sometimes its a total cover-up lie (no, I didn't do that; my account must have been hacked), and sometimes its a lie disguised as a partial admission of a lesser crime to try and divert attention from anyone discovering the true depths of our deed.  When it looks like we've got ourselves into an almighty knot, we try a different strategy, perhaps feigning illness - 'I wasn't in my right mind'; 'I was under a great deal of stress at the time', 'I hadn't gotten over the death of my father' ...

Only when we find ourselves cornered and out of options might we finally come clean and confess.  And we tell people how truly sorry we are.  And its not a false confession.  It might look that way, because it looks like we've been lying and were hoping to get away with it.  Would we have confessed if we hadn't been found out?  Probably not.  But the lack of confession until there was no other choice does not necessarily indicate lack of authenticity.  We are ashamed, we are embarrassed, we hate ourselves for our poor judgment and the hurt we have caused to people we care about, the trust we have lost, and we are disgusted by our flaws and inadequacies that have caused so much harm.  It was all those feelings and emotions that led us to try and cover things up in the first place - out of our desire to nullify the harm and make it all go away.  Hindsight is 20/20, as they say; we did not have the foresight to consider how much worse we were making the knot by our avoidance.

What is true of ourselves also plays out in our dealings with others.  When someone you love is guilty of an act of hurt, or poor judgment, how do you respond?  When they show true remorse and want to do whatever they can to bring some healing to the situation, do you push them away or do you try to make a path for them to do teshuvah - return/repentance?  There are no easy answers; sometimes we have to separate ourselves from an abusive or narcissist personality.  Sometimes we need time to mourn what has been lost - love, trust, friendship - before we can forgive.  But it is always worth taking a breath and a step back and asking ourselves if there is any room for compassion alongside our judgment of the sins of another.

Rabbis, as with all clergy, find ourselves engaging pastorally with people in every aspect of life's journey.  We seek to help those who have been hurt by another to find peace and to heal, and we seek to listen and help those who have sinned to do the inner work of true repentance, taking responsibility, but also the ability to heal and to move on rather than to carry the weight of their error forever.

So, yes, Anthony Weiner has messed up and, yes, he has more work to do.  But there's a spiritual lesson here, and its a lesson that requires deep contemplation ... for each and every one of us.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

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