Reconnect with Your Sense of Belonging

Reading from “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron

Each day, we’re given many opportunities to open up or shut down. The most precious opportunity presents itself when we come to the place where we think we can’t handle whatever is happening. It’s too much. It’s gone too far. We feel bad about ourselves. There’s no way we can manipulate the situation to make ourselves come out looking good. No matter how hard we try, it just won’t work. Basically, life has just nailed us. It’s as if you just looked at yourself in the mirror, and you saw a gorilla. The mirror’s there; it’s showing you, and what you see looks bad. You try to angle the mirror so you will look a little better, but no matter what you do, you still look like a gorilla. That’s being nailed by life, the place where you have no choice except to embrace what’s happening or push it away.



When I was growing up, we lived for a couple of years in a house with a really cool backyard. It had big boulders and grass and trees with really long, supple branches. And other trees with shorter, but unusually straight and slender twigs that my brother and I discovered could be used for all kinds of interesting things. Like, whittle away a point on some of the shorter slender branches, and if you make a notch on each end of a long branch and add a length of nylon thread from mom’s sewing room, then, voila, a bow and arrow. Many bows and many arrows. And that was a very exciting thing for my 10 year old self and my 12 year old brother. I don’t remember whether we ever hit the targets we set up. But I remember we had fun. 

That little scene came to my mind as I was reflecting on this season of Yom Kippur, with its core message around sin and redemption. This is the time of the year when Jewish people all over the world come together to acknowledge wrongdoing, small and large, and ask for forgiveness from each other and from God. And sin plays a big part in it. And sin, some of you may know, is an archery term. Bows and arrows.

Now, sin is a tough topic for many of us. Certainly has been for me. I spent a good number of my preteen and early teen years attending a school for and with foreign missionaries. We talked about sin. And my big takeaway – sin is bad, if you do it, you’re bad, if you keep doing it, you’re really bad, and eventually God will punish you. Although I had a short stint during which I tried really hard not to do anything wrong (which is tough when you’re in 7th grade and haven’t really tried all that hard to “be good” before), I couldn’t really keep it up. Yet there it was, this idea of sinning and being a sinner and it felt heavy and hard. Like – you should be ashamed of yourself kind of hard. Like, you are bad, kind of hard. 

I suspect some of you have your own experiences with that word. With being told you should be ashamed of yourself. With feeling ashamed of yourself and maybe even feeling like you *are* bad or somehow un-redeemable – a feeling it’s possible to get stuck in. For years. It’s one reason why, I think many UU congregations don’t even use this word with all its heavy associations. 

For me, at some point, not till I was an adult, long after I’d left the religions of my youth, I heard about this different translation of the original biblical Hebrew. This archery, bows and arrows, translation.  I liked it much better.  

Sin, this translation said, means simply missing the mark. As in, you took aim, you tried to hit the target, and you missed. Maybe it was the wind, maybe it was the shape of that particular arrow, maybe that bow was too rigid or your hand slipped. Whatever the cause, the arrow didn’t go where you’d intended. 

It was an idea that appealed to me immediately. Not only because it brought back these fun memories of the backyard and my brother, but was also, frankly, because it was just a huge relief. 

Because what it meant was, I’m not bad. Even if I sin. Even if I mess up. Sinning is just, well, you tried. And you missed. That’s okay, just, try again. You made a poor choice. Recalculate, as GPS’s used to say. 

This new interpretation was like this dark bottomless pit just got filled in by the theological public works department. Danger removed, standing on solid ground, now.  I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I’m not bad and there is no celestial punishment lurking around the corner just waiting for me.


So, that’s good news.  


But you know it can’t be that simple because I’m only 5 minutes into the sermon and nothing is ever that simple, at least from my point of view. 

And the fact is, if I’m really honest it’s not always entirely random, this missing the mark.  I have tendencies.  I tend to miss the same marks in the same way, again, and again. If it was simply a mistake, then as soon as I realized something was not for my ultimate good, I would change it. As soon as I remembered that something I was doing didn’t aligned with my highest values, I would stop. But I do not always stop. But I do not always change it.  


It’s not just the wind. It’s not just the shape of the arrow, sometimes it really is the archer. 


I mean, let’s get real for a moment. When I took cookies without asking as a kid, was that a mistake? Well, maybe (??) the first time. By time number 30 – probably not entirely random… When I would pick the same fight with my friend – you’re controlling me. No, you’re controlling *me*. Not random. 


Or as an adult now I think back on some ways I have hurt people – in similar ways – more than once.  Or failed to help. Not… random. 


Maybe….  I should I be ashamed of myself…

I will say I don’t think it’s just me wrestling with this blame, guilt, responsibility, is-it-a-mistake-or-was-it-intentional, good-choice-poor-choice kind of thing.  You can see it in the news any day – any jury trial of just about any legal case. See it in the questions over punishment vs rehabilitation in our justice system. 

Even the phrase poor choice – it’s actually kind of a fascinating phrase when you think about it. On the one hand, it implies that the doer, having made a choice can simply make a different one – hit the mark next time. But, you may have noticed, that we tend to use the term for things that are choiccceeesss sorta kinda??? Like, when Jim drank a bottle of whiskey the afternoon of his wedding, that was a poor choice. Or, when Janice blew up at her boss, on stage, right before a big presentation at salary renegotiation time – poor choice.  Or when Mary made a decision to marry a man who’d lied to her, 3 times, about important things, in just the last three months. Poor choice! Or even just every day things. Spending that cash you didn’t really have. Staying up way too late, again, watching netflix making you very very cranky the next day. I suppose they could be called choices but not exactly the kind a person makes after thoughtfully considering all their options. 


The fact is, when it comes to so many of our hardest things, most of us don’t feel like we’re making choices at all. More like being swept away in a current. Or repelled from by some magnetic force field from the good we would do. If only we could. 




I’m going to take a leap and assume that most of us here did not make it this far in life without something hard happening to you at some point, between growing up and now. Whether that’s  teased as a kid, scapegoated, bullied, ignored, made fun of or simply left out of something that was important for you. And that’s just the social stuff, then there’s the injuries, health scares, the family dynamics – caretakers and others who carried their own hurts and acted them out in ways that hurt you.  As adults, many of us can shape our lives to avoid these kinds of things but I don’t know any kid who escapes all of that, growing up. And when you’re young, you’re open and you’re vulnerable and that stuff hurts.


Life, is suffering. As the Buddhists say. 


And what happens then? Well, depends on the circumstances, but when hard stuff happened you may have gotten the message to suck it up or maybe you were told everything was fine, and so now you tend to think everything is fine, even when it’s not. Maybe you got the message that if you’re really nice to everyone, it won’t happen again. But and now you give too much, get resentful and disappear. Maybe you never learned how to work with your anger, and now you lash out in ways you wish you didn’t. Maybe your caretakers used drink or drugs to numb themselves and now you do the same, but with food or overwork. Maybe you learned to distract yourself by keeping really busy but now struggle to pay attention to the people who matter most to you. There are a million ways we humans have to cope with the stuff that got put on us. 


My theory is that those currents and gravitational fields that cause us hurt other people, do not come out of nowhere. There’s a reason we make poor choices and it’s not because we are inherently bad.

But we are also not just “fine.” We carry scars, and we tend to act some of them out, separating us from each other and ourselves cutting us off from the deep sense of belonging in this world that is our birthright. 

The idea that we are not just “fine” doesn’t sound like good news. But knowing this is good news. Because, much as we try not to look, or much as we tell ourselves this is just how we are, we kinda know that somethings off. We’re off. Sometimes we look like that gorilla. Sometimes we act like that gorilla. And seeing that, becoming willing to see that,  can be so powerful. Because that’s where change begins. 




So here’s this holiday. Yom Kippur. Which is all about noticing these things. The most obvious first. Ways that you’ve acted out. Or failed to act, this year. You were mean to your partner. You didn’t help your daughter with her project even though you’d promised. You stole your coworker’s idea. You failed to follow through on something important. This holiday is an invitation to make that right. To recognize and then apologize. To set things right with the people you’ve hurt. 


But there is more. When we say we’re sorry we often think it’s for the other person, or for the good of the relationship. We say we’re sorry because we think they want us to. Or because we don’t want them to be mad at us. Or because we know (because we’ve read self-help books), that apologizing makes friendships, marriages, parent child relationships – it makes all that stuff go better. 


But the thing we don’t always realize is how it helps, maybe even heals… us


One of the key rituals of YK is a reenactment of death. Which also doesn’t sound like good news. But is also, good news. 


In order to heal a painful thing, you need to see it, feel it, recognize it’s there. Which means, not acting out what covers it over.  Letting go, for a time, of the things that have been comforting the original discomfort. 


And there’s no comforting anything about death.  We can’t take a single thing with us, not our daily mocha latte, not the relief of telling someone exactly where you think they need to go, not a single self-justification, not my work and not even any of my friends.


But in that stark light, we can see more. Of what what we did. Of why we did it. Of what was driving us. Of what still hurts. 


On the day of atonement, the evening of October 8th through the evening of October 9th, observant Jews all over the world will renounce their comforts – they will fast, they will wear white like a burial shroud, they will go to synagogue and pray, all day. They will remember their mortality and allow it to show them something that might just turn them around. 


How about us, how about you, what might taking a deep long slow look show you? 


Life is precious. And it’s short. 


May we look openly, listen carefully, acknowledge deeply, apologize freely, and find a willingness to do what it takes to turn ourselves around. Toward ourselves, toward each other, toward an ever widening sense of true belonging in this world. 


I invite you as you are willing and able to say with me and sing the response:


[Closing hymn: #1037 We Begin Again in Love]


For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause- 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others- 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone- 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit- 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. 

For losing sight of our unity- 

For those and so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness- 

We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.