Back when my son, Asher, used to nap (those were good old days), he would usually only nap in the car. On days when it was my turn to drive around to get him down, I would pass the time by listening to episodes of my favorite radio program, This American Life. There is one episode in particular that I’ve listened to quite a few times and always listen to again around this time of year, called “Cringe.” The episode talks about the physical act of cringing. The episode tells stories of people cringing, discusses what people do that makes them cringe, and explains the physiology of cringing itself. Many of the stories relayed in the episode are relatable because most, if not all, of us have moments in our personal histories that make us cringe. As Ira Glass, one of the show’s producers, explains, “You cringe in that moment of revelation, when you suddenly see that maybe you are not the fun guy, when you see yourself as others see you. And it is not pretty.”
When you think about cringing, you realize just how strong the mind/body connection is. When, for example, we realize we are not who we think we are or, worse yet, we are but we’ve given people the wrong impression of ourselves, our mental feelings induce a physical reaction in our bodies. In a world where so much of our lives is made public through social media, wherein we can control what we show of ourselves to others, the minute we lose that control, our whole body reacts.
As Glass explains on the episode, “One of the doctors that we talked to about cringes for this week’s show pointed out that a cringe is basically the human body cowering in fear for an instant. And he said that one of the most fearsome, stressful things that we can encounter as people is the thought that we are not who we think we are, the thought that the world sees us differently than we see ourselves, and not in a good way.”
In other words, when we cringe, our body is basically giving physical way to the old expression, “I want to just crawl into a hole and die.” Importantly, it is not the mistake itself that makes us cringe. After all, we all make mistakes. Lots of them. Rather, it is what the mistake reveals about us that makes us cringe. Through that mistake, we make visible a vulnerability we had been trying, up until that point, to conceal. And that is frightening.
We should not, however, fear that any mistake is unforgivable, and that any damage a mistake creates cannot be undone. This is what our service tomorrow night, our Selichot service, teaches us. This Friday evening, we will ask God to hear our songs and prayers, and to bring about the time for teshuva, the time for “turning.” Selichot and the holidays that follow demand that we face our cringe moments, no matter how hard it might be, so that we may make the turn towards our better selves. At our Selichot service, as you watch the PAW committee change the Torah mantles from the standard to the High Holy Day covers, think of it as a metaphor for what we all have the opportunity to do this season. We can take off the skin of who we were, who we were perceived to be, and put on a shiny, new, unblemished coat. Who we were last year is not who we will be this year. We can stop cringing if we want to.
We can change. We can turn.