If you’re just joining us on this side of High Holy Days, over the past week we’ve been finding wisdom about ourselves in the short stories within children’s books, most notably Jon J Muth’s Zen Shorts, the story of Stillwater, a wise and kind Panda bear who befriends the children who are his neighbors and tells them stories to help them learn about life. Tonight we find Stillwater and his friend Karl swimming in a blow-up pool. Karl begins to complain to Stillwater about his brother, Michael, and how he’s always bossing him around. “Why does Michael always have to tell me what to do?” Karl asks.
Hours later, when Karl and Stillwater are having tea, Stillwater tells Karl, “You spent the whole day being angry with Michael. Did you notice how much fun we had?”
As Karl and Stillwater depart in a wagon down the green hills, Stillwater tells Karl a story.
Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk, she just shoved him out of the way and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”
“I set that woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
As Karl begins to understand, Stillwater asks him about Michael: “Do you think you have carried it long enough?”
“Yes,” Karl says.
“Good,” replies Stillwater.
Here’s the thing, I know why the younger monk is still carrying the woman. He’s angry. He just witnessed an “injustice,” someone blatantly disregarding the societal rules of politeness, of please and thank you, of humility and gratitude, and done so in the face of what was truly a rare act of kindness from a stranger. The young monk feels what many of us have felt in the face of people like that woman, people who are entitled, rude, and ungrateful. We feel that this is wrong, and we might even feel like we need to say something. How many of us would have wanted to go back and give that woman an earful? It makes sense that this is the young monk feeling this anger. The older monk has learned something that the younger monk has yet to learn, and that is something my wife has reminded me for years. In the face of anger at a horrible, cruel act, in the face of someone not appreciating the kindness I put out but rather using it against me, my wife tells me: “It’s not your job to fix people.” “It’s not your responsibility,” she says, “to police people and hold them accountable.”
Now, I’m a stubborn one, so it’s taken me awhile to get this into my head. A couple years ago, I was feeling very clever when, in response to my wife saying something along those lines, I said, “I’m a rabbi! I’m a teacher! If that’s not my job, what is?”
Older, wiser, with a good woman who has patiently endured my stubbornness, I now recognize that as a rabbi, particularly as a Reform Jew, it is my task in this life to make the world a better place–to practice tzedakah, justice, and gimilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness. To perform tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. As a rabbi, it’s my job to teach these values to all of you, to encourage you to be the best humans and Jews you can be, to provide you with strategies to do so–texts to study and moral questions to answer. But, and I hate to say it, my wife is right. It’s not my job, nor is it your job, to change people, to fix people, or to hold them accountable for the choices they make in this life.
I don’t mind telling you that, in my (relatively) short life, I’ve encountered bad people, people like the woman in Stillwater’s story. In my many previous jobs, my “first careers” as I like to call them, as a waiter and a bartender, as an airport rental car agent on Thanksgiving Day, as a door-to-door salesman, as a risk management manager, as a customer service agent, I’ve encountered the narcissists, the liars, the manipulators, the bullies. We have all met those people. And, if you’re like me, maybe you pushed back and tried to change them. And yet, no matter how hard I pushed, no matter how hard I protested, no matter how smart or clever I thought I was being, no matter how kind or courteous or righteous I thought I was, more often than not, I could not get them to apologize. To recognize their wrongs.
Who in this room has been there? Who has felt hurt, betrayed, ridiculed, manipulated, lied to, bullied, or abused? Maybe it was by someone you trusted. Maybe it was by a complete stranger. Maybe some of you felt brave and stood up for yourselves. But how many of you, in that moment, felt like you were screaming into a void? How many of you found that when you tried to push back, to show someone the error of their ways, that rather than validation or closure, you received only further ridicule or bruising? How many of you felt alone and helpless and mad? This, my friends, gets to the heart of what we should be talking about today, the lesson that a friendly panda bear named Stillwater is trying to teach to Karl, and to all of us.
On Yom Kippur, everyone talks about asking God for forgiveness, about receiving forgiveness for the hurt you’ve caused and granting forgiveness to those who have caused hurt. What we don’t talk about, however, is what to do about the people in our lives who hurt us but do not acknowledge us, the people who hurt us and, when confronted, deny it. What do we do about them? And, more importantly, what do we do with all the anger and frustration that we carry, knowing these people are just walking around most likely doing it to someone else and knowing there’s nothing we can do about it?
Robert Frost once wrote, “How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you?” Maybe my wife and our friend Stillwater are on to something. The young monk in the story is fuming about this woman. His anger clouded his vision. He lost sight of his beautiful surroundings, of his time to learn with a wise and experienced monk. Karl, angry at his brother Michael, did not focus on all the fun he was having with Stillwater. What should occur to us here is that we have to find a way to put that anger, that pull to try to fix the unfixable, down so that we can enjoy our own lives. The old monk in the story knows this, as he playfully asks the young monk, “Why are you still carrying her?” In other words, it happened, it’s over, and now life goes on. That woman was impolite and ungrateful, but what was a short moment of ingratitude was now hours of annoyance for a person, not because the woman continued to be ungrateful, but because the young monk could not let her ingratitude go.
What a poignant image this children’s book paints for us. The old monk tells us that when we carry with us that anger, we are literally carrying that person on our backs. We continue to strain ourselves, and exhaust ourselves, carrying someone who we should have put down hours, days, years ago. Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist once said, “You are the sky, Everything else, it’s just weather.”
We cannot help that things will happen to us. Storm clouds will roll in. Rain, sleet, and snow will fall. But we are just the sky underneath and weather passes. When it does, it’s gone. When storms pass, it’s up to us to remember that we are the sky, that we are the shiny, bright sunlit heavens and that we do have the ability to stop feeling that the storm is still going on.
Now I want to be clear, and this is the hardest lesson. When we, metaphorically, let these people go, it does not mean we’re excusing or accepting the behavior of those who have wronged us. It does not mean we’re giving up, on ourselves or on them. This was, for so long, my roadblock to happiness. I would argue that if I did nothing, if I didn’t fight back, if I didn’t set an example, then it meant I made their actions “okay.” That rather than deter their actions, I was encouraging them! But this is not so. As Stillwater taught us through the story of the monks, how we react to these people is up to us. We cannot control them, but we can control ourselves. As Barrie would often say in our discussions on this topic, “You cannot fix them. You cannot change them. But you can change you.”
Ultimately, we cannot decide for someone how they should or shouldn’t act. We cannot change other people if they don’t wish to change. We can, however, change how these people affect us. If they anger us, we do not need to carry that anger. We do not need to let them ruin our day or our week or our year. I don’t want to endorse the well-known phrase, “the best revenge is living well,” because revenge is certainly not what this time of year is about. But there is something powerful in the concept of living well. Of living in peace.
What if the mantra were, instead, “the best way to peace is living.” The best way to find inner peace, to let go of anger, is to put it down and just live your life. Enjoy the things around you. See God’s wonder in our surroundings. Find joy in the smiles of your family and friends. Have fun. Life’s a lot lighter, a lot more manageable, when we put down those we’ve been carrying. So, this Yom Kippur, think back to all those who you know you can’t fix, you know won’t apologize, and then envision the old monk in front of you in Stillwater’s story, asking you, “I put that woman down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?”