Sic transit gloria mundi, the Latins say, which means when you get sick on the road Monday morning the glorious memory of Sunday fades. (In the 1978 movie Foul Play, Goldie Hawn’s character was named Gloria Mundy, a jest that likely flew beneath the radar of most theatergoers.) They also say tempus fugit, meaning it’s Monday morning before you even have time to enjoy that glorious Sunday.
Thanksgiving, for those who were still left around the table, was a time for toting up all the accounts, tabulating units of gratitude which can mostly be only acknowledged, not repaid. We were thankful for organs that function, for family and friends, for work accomplished, for kindness granted and received, for pleasures given and taken. For moments of enlightenment and joy, for the chance to touch greatness and beauty and genius, for knowledge culled from life and books, for the hue and lilt of a flower, the trill of a bird, the flourish of a sunset, the triumph of a wave.
But this year I found myself thinking we tend to overlook one of the greatest gifts of all. All year people have been making spectacular fools of themselves, verbally or otherwise. The bizarre outburst by actor Michael Richards (aka Kramer of Seinfeld) is only the latest in the series. The all-star cast has included Mel Gibson, Patrick Kennedy, Mark Foley, John Kerry, George Allen, Bill Clinton, Nancy Grace, sportscaster Steve Lyons, and many more, in gross errors of judgment and behavior. Misprision and malapropism, solecism and solipsism, have been the order of the day.
Here the words of Rabbi Jonah of Gerona (c.1190-1263) in his classic masterwork, Gates of Repentance, apply: “Among the gifts bestowed by the Creator is preparing a path for people to rise from amid the trash of their deeds and escape the trap of their misdeeds… and the Bible explains that penitence is accepted even when prompted by one’s troubles rather than inspiration… and that God helps people to return even when their nature is not intrinsically strong enough…” Three amazing points, all packed into the very first paragraph of a book: change is possible, even when prompted by adversity, and commitment can supplant innate strength of character.
Rabbi Jonah came by this knowledge the hard way. The story is worth repeating, at the risk of making history buffs yawn. In the early 1200s there was a great deal of resistance to the works of Maimonides (1135-1204) from both Jewish and Christian sources. (One example of a controversial view: Abraham did not feed angels disguised as people, nor did Jacob actually wrestle an angel; those are both prophetic visions rather than actual occurrences.) In 1233, Christian authorities had the works of Maimonides burned in the public square in Paris, and Rabbi Jonah did not discourage the process. When the Talmud was burned in the same square nine years later, he realized he had erred and misjudged Maimonides. He decided to travel to Israel and prostrate himself on the grave of Maimonides in Tiberias. When his travel plans were thwarted and he got no further than Toledo, Spain, he sat down to write the book as an act of penance. This book written in 1246, first printed in 1505, has been reprinted consistently ever since.
So the great writer on penitence considered himself in need of his own work. This kind of self-examination and flexibility signals high character. If our society is unforgiving of the momentary foibles of people, even flippant utterances in moments of stress, and wields them as a club over the rest of their careers, we will lose many of our best people. No one is so great that he can thrive under the constant shadow of his lowest moment.
Thanksgiving dinners bring families together in an annual challenge to make fertile soil of their common ground. That includes the grandfather whose bankruptcy caused loss and hardship to a wide range of cousins. The uncle who once called his mother an obscenity when drink and irritability mixed badly. The cousin who showed up one rebellious year in a ridiculously revealing outfit that made everyone uncomfortable. And the daughter-in-law who stormed out in her first married year, feeling unwanted, and stayed away for a hurtful decade.
The same thing applies to our political world. We don’t need to forgive bribe-takers and other abusers of the political system or helpless individuals. But beyond that, there needs to be more openness to change. I have known a very few kids, boys and girls, who were angelically good from Day One and never slipped off the pedestal. The other 99.9% of us learn mostly by falling. Someone needs to be there with a hand to help lift us up.
In Latin they say: ab love principium. Which means you can’t get abs you love unless you remember the importance of falling and rising, as in sit-ups.
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