Erev Rosh HaShanah 5784, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann
This summer, I re-read This I believe, a book of excerpts from NPR’s series of the same name, in which people from all backgrounds share their personal philosophies. One in particular has stayed with me since. Greg Chapman, an ordinary man from Houston, TX, who is a tax accountant and a writer, starts by saying, “What do I believe? That the stories I tell myself shape my truth, my soul, and my life.”
Chapman, in his short piece, shares his journey to telling new stories about himself in order to find acceptance and self-worth. He talks about growing up in a religious Christian household and community that sent explicit and implicit messages about who and what was “bad” and “sinful.” These stories became his own.
As he grew older, he struggled to come to terms with the fact that he was a gay man. Given the stories he was told his whole life, Chapman thought there was something terribly wrong with him. He writes, “I came to believe that I was an abomination, a thing hated by God.” He fell into a deep depression and tried to deny who he was.
But, he recalls, around the age of 35, things started to change. He writes: “I started to change the basic stories of my life; that I’m bad, alienated from God… I started to love myself and to believe the Divine did so as well. As that belief strengthened through the repetition of the (new) story, I began to love others, and I was loved back. The more I loved myself, the more beauty I saw in everyone else. The more I healed…I looked more and more to my own heart to find the right path.”
And he ends with these words: “And this I believe. The right story is the one that helps me to love myself the most, to create the most, to love others and to support them in their creations.”
As Greg Chapman attests, the stories we tell have power and potency. The wrong stories can have tremendous negative impact — they can keep us down, stop us from being our authentic selves, from accepting love and connection. On the other hand, there are stories we can tell that offer possibility and promise — stories that can help us heal, accept and love ourselves, and grow. And in our own life, each of us can change the stories of our lives. And build a new future.
This idea is especially fitting for tonight, the beginning of Rosh HaShanah.
Rosh HaShanah is HaYom Harat Olam, the day the world is born, and thus a time to celebrate the very act of creation itself! According to the Torah, the world was created through words. The Torah teaches that the creation of the entire world occurred through words. “In the beginning…God spoke “let there be light’ and there was light.” Just as God created through words, so do we — every time we speak, we construct our reality. It is a ripe time for us to be thinking about the words that we use, the stories that we tell-for good and bad — and thinking about how we want to use our words more intentionally in the coming year.
And at a time when we are thinking about the books of life and death opened before us, Rosh HaShanah is an auspicious time to consider: TWhat are the stories we are telling about ourselves and our lives? Which ones are serving us? Which ones no longer serve us… but we tell them anyway? Which stories take away from our sense of self or connectedness? In the coming year, can we write ourselves into sefer hahayim, the book of life?
Greg Chapman talks about the need to retell the very basic facts of his life. He grew up in a homophobic environment and in order to accept himself and find happiness, he had to tell a radically different story than the one he had grown up hearing and retelling.
But, this idea- that changing our stories changes our lives — is not only true for these larger, meta-stories about our values or way of seeing the world. It is also true in smaller, more seemingly mundane ways. Every day, we tell ourselves multiple stories about ourselves, our jobs/careers, our parents, our partners and our children that are not helpful or empowering; as we retell and retell those stories, a narrative gets formed in our minds. But when we change the story, an opening occurs.
The rabbis teach this lesson about teshuvah (change, repentance): “God says to us: My children, show me an opening of repentance no larger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which wagons and carriages can pass.” What a beautiful lesson — even the smallest opening for change can enable significant transformation. If we tell a new story, even and perhaps especially one that may feel “small” — that new story has the power to unlock new possible understandings of ourselves and new points of connection in our relationships.
Blogger Jodi Chapman (no relation to Greg Chapman above!) shared a story that demonstrates this truth. She talks about rewriting a seemingly small story she had told about herself for most of her life. The old story: she was NOT a morning person. She hated to greet the day. It took her a long time to be fully awake. She needed A LOT of coffee to be even remotely alert. Even so, she was grumpy all the way through the early afternoon.
Chapman realized that this story was getting in the way of enjoying life and feeling good about herself. She saw how the story had reinforced her reality — until she felt she had no choice not to be a morning person!
So, she decided to tell a new story: She was a morning person! She couldn’t wait to greet the day! She was fully awake after she got out of bed. She woke up happy, alert, and grateful.
And lo and behold, she began to live into her new story. Soon, she found herself jumping out of bed, ready to start the day. She was in a happier, more optimistic and alert place when she awoke and continued to feel happiness and joy for greater periods of the day. She felt a greater sense of purpose and determination. After retelling her new story over and over again, it became her truth and her reality. And this small yet tremendous shift positively changed how she felt about herself and experienced her life.
Imagine substituting “I am not a morning person” for any number of stories that we tell about ourselves, for example: “I am not a math person.” “I am not adventurous.” “I am impatient.” “I am lazy.” “I am not good at FILL IN THE BLANK.”
Each and every day, we narrate our world through telling stories or reinforcing ones that we have heard and internalized.
This time of reflection and change is an auspicious time to ask ourselves: What stories are we telling about ourselves that do not help us? Are there stories that we are telling that are outdated or that do not serve us anymore, that we need to let go of, consciously and with repetition, as we enter a New Year?
Tonight, while we are in this sacred place and sacred time, I would like to invite us into some time for beginning this process of letting go of old stories and telling new ones.
If you feel comfortable, I invite you to put your prayer book somewhere if you haven’t already and close your eyes and spend a few minutes thinking about some stories in your life that might not serve you. It could be a paradigm shift of the magnitude of Greg Chapman or something as small and simple as not being a morning person — or it can be a story we tell about another person in our lives that is getting in the way of intimacy and connection. Find ONE story that you think you might want to shift. (pause) Consider an alternative narrative you might tell in its place.
When you are ready, open your eyes.
We begin tonight with the stories of self, and through these holidays we will consider retelling the stories we tell about the present and future; on Kol Nidre, the stories we tell about the people, known and unknown, and on Yom Kippur afternoon, the stories of those new migrants in NYC.
As we journey into this holiday, thinking about the stories we tell and wish to tell, let us remember the wise words of Greg Chapman: “The right story is the one that helps me to love myself the most, to create the most, to love others and to support them in their creations.”
Shana Tova & Shabbat Shalom!
This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ed. Allison and Gediman, Henry Holt & Company, NY.
Song of Songs Rabbah 5.2