Monday, October 1, 2012

Denying Denial

I delivered this sermon to Congregation Atz Chaim in Ramona, California, on Yom Kippur morning, 10 Tishrei 5773 (26 September 2012)

I absolutely, categorically, and without exception reject reality.  Well, perhaps there are a few exceptions but for the most part I do, in fact, reject reality most of the time.  Here are some exceptions to my reality rejection rule.  The earth is round.  That appears to be an irrefutable reality that I do not reject.  We’ve seen the pictures from satellites and space shuttles.  And apparently some guy named Eratosthenes sometime between 276 and 194 Before the Common Era figured out that the earth was round by measuring the way the light fell straight down a well in one city but at an angle in another city and somehow came up with the notion that the earth was round.  So I get it that the shape of the earth is real and I accept that.  I also accept gravity not necessarily because some guy named Isaac Newton said that it exists but because when I release my hold on a book it falls to the floor.  So gravity is another reality I accept.  For the most part though, I do reject a lot of reality.  Well not a lot necessarily but some.  I reject some of reality.
            Because of this rejection of reality it might be said that I live in a state of denial.  Denial is an ego defense mechanism.  I utilize denial to help me get through the day.  There are a lot of other defense mechanisms:  Displacement helps me slam a door when I’m angry instead of hitting someone.  Intellectualization allows me to focus on the mechanics of a funeral instead of feeling grief.  When I use the defense mechanism of projection I am able to tell someone else that they are stupid instead of feeling stupid myself.  I use rationalization when I tell myself its okay to eat that donut because I only had coffee for breakfast.  The defense mechanism of regression tells me its okay to throw a temper tantrum when I don’t get my own way.  I can use repression to forget traumatic memories.  I can use suppression to accomplish the same thing.
            So you see, I have a lot of tools to help me reject reality or at least the one reality I have to reject.
            I’m not the only person who rejects that reality.  You do, too.  All of you.  Each and every person here spends a whole lot of time and energy avoiding the reality of our lives because if we didn’t reject that reality we’d have a really difficult time getting through the day.
            I’m not talking about the reality of paying bills or studying for tests or staying on diets or getting regular exercise or meeting work related deadlines though we certainly do our share of avoiding those realities on occasion.
            I’m talking about a much bigger reality and most of us most of the time use whatever defense mechanisms we can come up with to pretend that that particular reality doesn’t exist.  The reality we spend so much time avoiding or ignoring is, of course, our own mortality.  We are each and every one of us going to die.  We will not survive life.  We will not make it out of this alive.
            Knowing this, how can we possibly make it through the day?  Knowing that I will die, how can I even get out of bed?  And so – completely ignoring this hard, cold ultimate truth – I do get out of bed and I do make it through the day.  So do you.
            Death is a reality almost impossible to contemplate.  And yet this holiday, this Yom Kippur, is devoted to death.
            G’mar Ha’timah tovah.  May be final writing be for good.  May I be inscribed in the book of life.  On Rosh HaShannah it is written.  On Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live this year and who shall die?  Who shall live?  Me, me, me, me.  Who shall die?  Surely not me because I’ve already said that I reject the reality of death.  More specifically I reject the reality that I will one day die so none of those ‘who shall’ things can possibly apply to me.
            Yet here I am in the middle of this day of death forced if only one time each year to face the reality I so studiously avoid.  Here I am facing death.
            The day has given me opportunities to drop my guards – my defenses – by asking me to if not completely fast at least to do the best I can so that as the sun sets there will be little left of my reality rejections – of my primitive ego defenses.  I will if for no other reason simply be too tired to not ‘get it’ that one day I will die.
            And then to really drive that point home I will – as the sun sets on my day and metaphorically on my life – recite the death bed confession that ends Yom Kippur – Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad.  Baruch shame kvod malchuto l’olam vaed. Adonai hoo haeloheim.  Hear Oh Israel.   The Lord is our God.  The Lord is One.  Blessed is God’s Kingdom for ever and ever.  The Eternal Lord is God.
            Perhaps then during that moment before the final gasping blast of the shofar ends this day of dying I may let in the sobering reality that my days are numbered.   And if I can withstand the terror of that moment I may truly as the gates of heaven close dare to walk away from my deathbed confession and my long day of dying to a life more urgent and more real than that lived before this day began.
            That is the purpose of this day of awesome dread.  We begin it proudly wearing our suits of denial like the Emperor and his new clothes and we end it shrouded in the humble knowing that life is precious and oh so very short.
            The gates are still open on this day but let’s go ahead and put aside all of the defenses and denials and rejections that keep us from deciding what we want and must do with our – in the words of the Mary Oliver poem read last night -- one precious life knowing with absolute certainty that it will end.
            Right now.  Let’s put aside all of that and get to the work of this practice dying.  Once a year we get to ‘get it’ and then and only on this day walk away from our death bed confessions to lives hopefully changed for the better.
            Today is our pretend death day.  What we do with it is our choice.  What we do with our precious time after the final shofar blast of this year is also our choice.  We decide our final inscriptions.
            Gmar hatimah tovah.  May my final inscription be for good.  Gmar hatimah tovah.  May your final inscription also be for good.  This dying day belongs to each of us.  So, too, does the choice of how we live our precious days belongs to each of us.
            Gmar hatimah tovah.  May the final inscription be for good.

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