Ottawa
3 min

Peccavimus: We have sinned

In August, it is difficult to imagine the September world in which you will be reading this. Will more bombs have exploded on subways – in the UK or here? Will gasoline prices be threatening the $2 tidemark as they currently threaten the $1? Will “brown-outs” have prevented another big blackout, or will a heat tsunami finally have submersed Ontario’s struggling hydro generation?

Of course, anything that prevents the usual back-to-school, back-to-work, post-Labour Day re-engagement with serious life is likely to be a catastrophe big enough to prevent the publication of Capital Xtra. And at that point, all is moot. But fortunately for columnists, some of the future is relatively predictable.

Among the predictables of September and early October are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah – punctuating 23 days of contemplation and celebration that close off the old year in the Jewish faith and welcome in the new. It makes sense to me, in a modern, theo-kleptic, poly-spiritual way, that there might be a thing or two worth appropriating from these ritual occasions. Of particular interest to me at the moment are the concepts of blame, responsibility, atonement and forgiveness.

At the end of July, I spent an anxious day at a major hospital in southwestern Ontario where my mother was having an angiogram and, potentially, follow-up angioplasty. The day started with extra stress as staff were thoroughly discombobulated by a meeting that had drained nurses and orderlies from the area and left operating rooms unprepared. The largest helping of blame was directed at the absent nurses, none of whom could be contacted through their pagers. At the same time, the surgeon’s impatient questions made it clear that staff who had not gone to the meeting had paid no attention to its location or planned duration. The chaos and blame-tossing would have been amusing if the wellbeing of my mother wasn’t resting in those hands.

Surrounding the mini-drama of the hospital staff was the greater ongoing drama between the parental units. Useful expression, that. They were once a single, and singular, parental dyad. They faced and overcame adversities starting with making a racially-mixed marriage back when that was just barely moving from illegal to inappropriate. Then, to add to the challenge, they moved on to raising a dreamy and distracted child in the era before Ritalin. Once the child was kicked out to sink or swim through university, the dyad took on providing a nursing home for paternal’s elderly relatives.

Unfortunately, with retirement, the dyad appears to have divided – or at least be on the verge. The parentals are definitely two separate units, living together out of a complex and roiling mixture of obligation, dependence, fear – the fraying threads of the love that started it all – and so many links of blame that all else is enchained and impervious to change. Blame is so easy, so tempting – I can see its lure and recognize it in my own relationships as well.

Take something as simple as books. Can’t find the one you were reading yesterday? You know you left it on the table. If it’s not there now, someone must have moved it, and it can only be their fault you can’t find it. But there’s the step before that – the step where the book was put on the table. For some peculiar reason, about half of humanity believes kitchen tables are for eating, and bookcases, desks or bedside tables are for keeping books. For some even more peculiar reason, those folk are most likely to marry those of us who know that tables are for piling the things that we are working on now, reading, thinking about filing or trying to decide whether or not to throw out. And they have the audacity to move our stuff.

I’m not claiming to have solutions to everything – not even to the kitchen table problem. (Though the period during which D and I had a white picket fence made out of pipe cleaners and Popsicle sticks running down the middle of our table was amusing. Her side had one vase with fresh flowers, provided by moi, and dishes and cutlery placed no more than five minutes before eating and removed no later than five minutes after. My side had piles. Almost all of the time I was good enough to ensure the dishes were on the top of the piles. But only almost.)

I believe, however, that blame dead-ends solving anything. Analyzing a chain of events backwards merely to move blame up a link doesn’t help. Nor is the blame chain broken by blaming oneself – self-flagellation is not pretty, and it deprives some deserving top of his or her fun. Taking responsibility is the only way to stop blame from escalating. The difficulty is finding the right bits to take responsibility for, and learning to be resolute in not taking responsibility for everything else.

Not being Jewish, I can’t say whether their reason for taking 20-plus days to work through the annual year-end rituals is related to that difficulty. For the rest of us gentiles it wouldn’t hurt to take as much time as needed from the daily frantic to contemplate the things we’ve done, or not done, over the last year that we hope to do better in the next. I can’t say it will not hurt to try to repair a mistake or two – atonement is necessary to forgiveness – but consider it a good pain.

L’shanah tovah. May the new year be good to you all, and may we all be good to it!