We Are More Than the Sum of Our Stories

We Are More Than the Sum of Our Stories

TWD contributor, Amy Shouse wrote a recent post about how we rush to judgment and that “until we know a person’s whole story and take a moment to think what it might be like to ‘climb into their skin,’ we’ll miss out on discovering the empathy we have within ourselves…” She was right on.

This insight is taken radically and unnervingly further on Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, which begins tomorrow evening. Repeatedly, during this daylong practice of Reality Therapy devoted to forgiveness, we are reminded that we can never know another person’s whole story and that in fact we can never even know our own whole story. There is a too muchness to our psyches, to who we are, to why we do what we do, to ever know the whole story. How many times have we let our anger get the best of us, lost our cool, lashed out and hurt someone, let down or deceived, or cheated someone, succumbed to some temptation, or betrayed a loved one, and when confronted could barely explain why we acted the way we did, so out of character – as if we weren’t ourselves.

We do not simply choose how to act. Our actions depend, at least partly, on factors outside our awareness and control. Yes, we make free choices for which we need to be accountable but it is also true that an infinitely long chain of causes and effects that we can never fully get to the bottom of, determines our actions; genes, biology, parents, upbringing, early experiences, what I ate for lunch, where I live, traumas, what I learned in school, the history of my community, random encounters and so on.

We are more than the sum of our stories and therefore it is excruciatingly difficult for us to feel understood, to understand others, to understand our self.

But here is the twist, on Yom Kippur we imagine a God/ Cosmos/Reality who does know everything about us – every cause and effect of every action and all our conscious and unconscious secrets. We intuit that if we were completely known, if all the variable causes that led us to behave the way we did were known, our actions – even the worst of them – would be understood and we would be judged compassionately.

Obviously, we need to appreciate our experience of freely making choices and knowing we can deserve punishment — or praise. But, we become harsh and judgmental when we think we can know the “whole story” and ignore the reality of the natural and social factors that influence all of our choices.

We are more than the sum of our stories and therefore it is excruciatingly difficult for us to feel understood, to understand others, to understand our self. To think we can is what wisdom traditions call hubris, original sin, pride, vanity, narcissism, folly, madness, egocentricity, selfishness… And in the wake of feeling certain we fully know other people so much destructiveness follows. It is harder to pull a trigger – literally and figuratively – while exercising curiosity, doubt, and wonder.

In the Hindu tradition, when you greet someone, you say Namaste, which literally means, “I bow to you”, but culturally means, “I bow to the divine in you.” It is up to us to see and to cultivate the divine – the unknown doing what we don’t know – in everyone we meet.

On Yom Kippur we admit we are all hard and judgmental and kind and loving, scared and confident and lonely and connected, strong and weak and cowardly and courageous, loyal and betraying and na?ve and cynical, believers and doubters and sinners and saints. We recognize and are humbled that as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, lovers and friends, neighbors and citizens, allies and enemies we are all holding on for dear life, trying to find our way as we are swept up in the whirlwind of life without ever understanding our “whole story”.

Can we embrace this sacred messiness and even when forced to protect ourselves from the hurtful and destructive behavior of others (and our own), make compassion and forgiveness our practice? We ask the God we imagine to do this for us… in the hope we will do it for each other.


Irwin Kula

Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin's writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC's The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O'Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.

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