Today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish faith. I’m a middling Jew. I came into it late and adopted what made best sense to me in the context of a spirituality based on a lot of things we have no better name for than witchcraft as I went along. It’s a long-term exploration that lets me go a little deeper each year, learn a little more; faith is, in that way, much like life. And my life and my faith are coalescing, slowly, towards the same goal. Put simply, the goal is love.
I would posit love is the easiest and most fragile feeling, the easiest and most fragile theoretical object we ever hold in our hands. Love is a Rorschach test: what people see when they see it tells you more about them than it does about the thing itself. It’s real and it’s a construct. It’s a word for a lot of things that are not the same thing. And it is, in all of its expanse and breadth and depth, the thing I have chosen as my particular undertaking, and the thing I measure myself against each year on this day. How am I doing, I ask, at love?
I’m doing fine. Better than before. Not nearly as well as I could be. My love is sincere but sometimes scatter-brained. When faced with the challenge of unkindness, my love falters to anger, a significantly easier emotion for me to access and one that served me well, for a long time, as a shield against the painful vulnerability true love requires. Life is not unlike a video game in many ways; conquer one level, feel good for a moment, and the universe will often hand you a new challenge to overcome, one that makes every previous challenge you sweat so hard seem laughably simple. And so in the last few years my capacity for love, my ability to love, has been challenged in new ways, and I have often faltered and often failed, although to my credit, I do get back up and try again, although to my detriment, I don’t always do it with any particular degree of grace.
Sometimes life will hand me back one of those “laughably simple” challenges I longed for when new ones arose, and sometimes I manage to fail at those as well. Those ones hurt; those ones are like being a high school junior and failing one word on a third-grade spelling test. “I just blanked!” I think to myself, but it’s human feelings on the line, and relationships I’ve worked long and hard for, not a school grade, and even the occasional slip and failure won’t do. And yet, in my slips and failures, my friends and family find their capacity for forgiveness, and their forgiveness reminds me to love.
And so, in the liminal space of the days of awe, when we simultaneously look back and consider the future – no neat “Happy New Year!” clean-slates for Jews – I remember the admonition to measure in love. Go with me on this: the admonition, or invitation, is from a musical called Rent. If you were a 90s theater kid nerd you knew all the words. If you ever loved theater or were a nerd you knew all the words. And as a lost, intermittently lonely, nerdy kid, they were the kind of words that saved me: exuberant, meaningful, joyous. With time and a little perspective, that measured word for “enough space to be embarrassed by the process of growing up,” I’ve come to think of it as corny and sweet. But like everything else that holds real meaning – like love – it is many things that are difficult to simplify. It is a musical; it is a call to arms for weirdos; it is one of the earliest examples of successful diversity in theater; it is written by a white man; it is written by a Jew. It is written by a young man who died suddenly and without warning at the height of his earliest success, whose last call to arms was a call to love. It is a reminder, both in the creating and the telling of it, that time is limited and precious and that deciding exactly what we will do with it is our most profound daily challenge. And when I look back on this past whirlwind year, and when I look back on however many I have to come, I will try, in fact, however corny, to measure in love. I have very little else to give.