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What Unenforceable Rule is Driving Your Grievance Story?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Kol Nidre, Temple Chai, 2022

Tonight we begin our Yom Kippur journey. This time is a gift we give ourselves to renew and restore relationships that are in need of repair, and to forgive ourselves for our many imperfections.

We began 40 days ago, on Rosh Chodesh Elul. By now, in an ideal universe, we are ready for a day of deep contemplation and teshuvah. But, what if we can’t let go? What if, instead of feeling peace, we are still eating ourselves up with resentment and anger?

Forgiveness, it turns out, is, for most people, one of the greatest spiritual challenges of a lifetime. Part of the reason for that is that we use the word forgiveness expansively. We understand forgiveness as acceptance of wrongdoing. It’s not. We understand it as a requirement for reconciliation. Not necessarily. We think it means that the pain magically disappears, that there are no consequences, that trust is reestablished. None of this is the case.

So what IS forgiveness? Forgiveness is something that we do for OURSELVES. It is part of our own healing. We are here to lower our own blood pressure and lower our own heartbeat, not to condone the actions of others. Yom Kippur is our time for ourselves.

I learned from Dr. Fred Luskin in his remarkable book Forgive For Good[1] of the power of what he calls the “grievance story.” Thinking back over the year that is drawing to a close, do you have a grievance story? Perhaps more than one? The grievance story is one that you tell yourself- relentlessly- of how you were hurt, how someone did you wrong, and why you have every right to be enraged. It begins when we take things excessively personally, then we blame the offender for how we feel, and then we settle into a story that we just can’t let go of. We blame our friends and loved ones, we blame our parents, we blame ourselves.

If we can learn to let go of our grievance story, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be hurt. It doesn’t mean that we won’t or SHOULDN’T be angry. It DOES mean that we won’t continue to suffer that pain long past the time when the other person has totally forgotten what occurred. Hanging on to resentment has been compared to drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. We tell ourselves, we tell anyone who will listen, we reinforce our feeling that “he done me wrong.” Our frustration and hostility grows and grows and grows. I am inviting you to consider leaving your grievance story here in this room over the next 24 hours. Can we really and truly just let it go?

Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this book was the notion of an “unenforceable rule.” Dr. Luskin defines unenforceable rules as the foundation of our grievance story. The unenforceable feeds our anger. Here’s the example he offers: There is a police car parked off to the side of the road. The engine has died. Imagine the police officer’s frustration, standing next to the vehicle, radar gun in hand, watching folks drive by exceeding the speed limit, writing tickets with no way to deliver them. What would you say to that police officer who continues to write ticket after ticket, anger intensifying, exploding, and no way to change the situation in that moment? You might suggest that the officer breathe, figure out how to get the car repaired, and accept that they are the victim of their own unenforceable rules. Drivers shouldn’t exceed the speed limit! Yes! Police cars shouldn’t stop working! Yes. And. How are these “shoulds” helpful in releasing frustration? Answer- they’re not.

We can keep writing tickets to punish those who break our rules. And. Guess what? Our rules are unenforceable. My grandchildren adore the book Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter. I mean, they can easily hear it a dozen times a day. What makes this book so powerful to toddlers? We all love to break rules, and toddlers’ lives are ruled by rules. It is thrilling to read about Larry who has only one rule- don’t push the button- and then watch as the inevitable happens. We push the button, turn the page, and disaster follows. We break the rule, because it’s irresistible, and chaos ensues. There is a whole universe of things that we wish for that we have no ability to make happen. We wish everyone would obey OUR rules, that no one would push OUR buttons, but our rules are unenforceable. We can’t make others follow our rules. The only thing we CAN do is to make ourselves miserable. We spend our days writing ticket after ticket that we can’t deliver.

In Jewish tradition, we are not required to forgive. And we are CERTAINLY not required to forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness. In fact, the person who hurt us is obligated to request forgiveness at least three times. Forgiving is something we do for ourselves, as part of our own healing. It is quite okay to meditate on what occurred, to understand our feelings about it, and to hold onto that intensity for a while. People do things that are just wrong, and there is nothing wrong with our naming them. Sharing our pain with our support system is a healthy part of the forgiveness process. Yet it is only a part. Ultimately we need to find ways to move forward and to leave the past in the past.

Ron and I were traveling this past year and I saw a road sign that I thought was brilliant. It read, “Don’t let yesterday take over too much of today.” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to say that when we don’t let go of pain, we construct a prison within ourselves and we become the jailer, using up our precious time and attention to keep the offender under lock and key. Given the limitations of the time and focus that we have, is that really the best use of our precious resources?

The fundamental question each of us has to confront is- do we want to wake up each day with anger, retelling our grievance story and how we were victimized, or, do we want to wake up each day with joy and anticipation and the sense of ourselves as heroes for overcoming deep hurt? If we’ve been able to let go of something truly painful, it is perfectly okay and highly appropriate to pat ourselves on the back. We have accomplished something incredibly challenging and important. We can feel the uplift of releasing the spiritual burden of anger and resentment; it can almost feel like a physical relief!

Is it a huge challenge? Yes. Do the benefits outweigh the challenge? For sure. Dr. Luskin offers this example- imagine that someone offered you twenty million dollars if you agree to no longer think about your grievance. What would you say? What would you do? If you are like virtually all of us, you would figure out a way to take the money and run! In this case, there is a very good reason to forgive. Without a financial motive, there are STILL very good reasons to forgive, primary among them the quality of our own lives, our own happiness, and the ability to appreciate all the good with which we are blessed. He suggests the analogy of our tv remote. It is up to us which channel we select to watch. Are we tuning in to the grievance channel or the love and gratitude, forgiveness and peace channel? We can’t change the past and what occurred. We CAN change how we choose to think about it in the present and moving forward. We can recognize when our hurt and anger are coming from an unenforceable rule. Instead of hoping and expecting that our rules will be universally followed, because they won’t!, we can remind ourselves that we might WISH for them to be followed but we have no power to enforce them.

For example, I have an unenforceable rule that people should show up for appointments and, indeed, that they should be there on time. Guess what? People’s relationship to time management is very personal. While being 10 minutes late might feel like a capital offense to me, to someone else, that is within the window of “on time.” If I can’t learn to forgive people who are late, I am going to spend a lot of time being angry. Requiring that folks be on time is an unenforceable rule.

This one really resonated with me. Luskin writes, “Needing to be perfect is an unenforceable rule.”[2] Somehow I need to make peace with sometimes being late myself.

On a more serious note, we may have unenforceable rules that people should not die young, that partners should be faithful, that we should be rewarded for our good deeds. We have no power to control any of this. We regain our power when we air our grievance story appropriately, make a decision as to whether we want to discontinue a relationship, and then, forgive and let go. Is there anything we learned from this experience that we want to carry forward? Instead of ongoing resentment, we have ongoing triumph at our own powerful resilience. That is our NEW story, a story of positivity and healing.

There is one, and only one, person in this lifetime we can control. Forgiveness hinges on accepting that reality. In the moment and for a short time thereafter, hurt and anger are normal and appropriate. Yet, just as on Yom Kippur we ask God to forgive us and to wipe the slate clean, it is a sign of wisdom to do the same for ourselves and others. Most of us are trying our best and we will all fail to achieve it multiple times in a lifetime. Life would be filled with a lot more love and kindness if we could accept that disappointment is inevitable, that we all have unenforceable rules, and that it does no one any good to stay in the place of anger. On Yom Kippur we pray that God will move from the seat of judgment to the seat of compassion. We can do the same.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero’s class work of Jewish spirituality, Tomer Devorah, suggests that God maintains “a reserve of redeeming characteristics at hand as a failsafe against Divine anger, calling upon this reserve when . . .behavior. . . elicits a consequence of punishment.”[3] I love that phrase- “a reserve of redeeming characteristics.”

Instead of Yom haDin, the Day of Judgment, I’m proposing that we re-name this holiday as the Day of Forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, forgiving God. Let’s use the gift of this day to be honest with ourselves about our unenforceable rules and the grievance stories they have blossomed into, and leave them behind on this holiest of days.

[1] Luskin, Dr. Fred, Forgive For Good, NY: Harper One, 2002

[2] Ibid., p. 199

[3] Abramson, Henry, The Kabbalah of Forgiveness, Sam Sapozhnik Publishers, 2018, p. 115

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