This is a story about Emily, although “Emily” is not her real name. In truth, though, this really is a story about all of us.
Long ago, when Emily was ten years old, she had a terrible problem with bullies in her school. In the first week of fourth grade, one of the girls in her class decided that Emily’s frizzy hair was ugly – and she told her so. She also told all the other girls in the class, “Emily is the ugliest girl I have ever seen. Her hair looks like it is made of straw and it won’t stay straight no matter how much she combs and brushes it. Maybe someday she will find a man who is just as ugly as she is to marry her. Maybe she won’t find anyone.”
Emily went home that day and cried. She told her mother about what the other girl had said about her. Her mother wanted to help, so she offered advice, “Ignore them. Show them that their words can’t hurt you. If they tease you, just tease them right back. Don’t be a victim.” She gave Emily the message that she could stop the bullying by changing her behavior, but Emily heard the advice as confirmation that she was the problem, not the bullies. She was being victimized because she was allowing herself to be a victim.
Bullying was not a thing, in those days. There were no helpful articles about it psychology magazines; there was no good advice about it in parenting books. There weren’t academic studies on bullying, its effect on young people, or how to stop it. The popular stereotype in that era was that children were bullied because of their own insecurities and annoying behaviors. Emily’s mother responded to her daughter being bullied in the same way that most parents of that time would respond: She told her to smile more, make friends, fit in, and not to be so sensitive to other children’s taunts.
Emily wanted to follow her mother’s advice, but the bullying just got worse. When she tried to ignore the bullies, they just saw it as a challenge to make her crack. When she tried to return their name-calling by calling them names, the bullies howled with laughter and thought of worse names to call her.
Emily came home from school every day, threw herself on her bed, and sobbed into her pillow. She prayed to God that the bullying would stop. She started pulling on her hair until it became a constant nervous habit, as if she were trying to yank the frizzy hair out by the roots. Her parents took her to a doctor when her scalp was red and bleeding. The doctor told her, “If you keep doing that, you’ll make yourself so ugly nobody will ever want you.” She believed him. She believed the girls in her class who told her that she was already the ugliest girl in the world. She believed her parents when they said that the words of bullies couldn’t hurt her, so she believed that she, and not the bullies, was the real problem.
Fourth grade was the worst year of Emily’s life. Things got better in the decade that followed. By the time Emily was in college in the early 1970s, frizzy hair was considered “cool” and she stopped hearing about how ugly her hair was. Instead, she heard people tell her how much they envied her thick and wild hair. Women and men told her that she was beautiful, and she tried to believe them. But, even if the memories of being bullied had faded from her, she had not lost the feeling in her bones that there was something wrong with her.
All of those hurtful words – from her classmates, from her parents, from her doctor – left their mark. Today, Emily is 64 years old. She doesn’t think about the fourth grade much anymore, but the scars are still there.
Today, when a co-worker dismisses her good ideas, when one of her clients cancels an appointment at the last minute, or when the plumber take three days to fix her water heater, part of Emily becomes that little girl again and she believes what she was told as a ten-year-old. She thinks, “It must be my fault. There must be something wrong with me. I am not lovable. I am not worthy of love. It is my own fault that I am a victim.” Even when she realizes the harm she is doing to herself by believing those things, she blames herself for not being stronger in confronting people who treat her badly. And, so, the cycle continues.
The faded memories from childhood, and the feelings those memories have drilled into her mind, have become like a pebble that Emily has carried in her pocket for the last half century. The pebble keeps slapping up against her thigh as she walks in her blue jeans. She has gotten so used to it that she hardly notices it anymore. But, it’s always there. Often, it hurts. Despite Emily’s success in life by most conventional standards, that pebble can still make her feel worthless.
I tell Emily that she should take this pebble out of her pocket sometimes and look at it. I ask her to think about whether the stories the pebble tells about her are true. I say to her, look at the pebble and ask yourself if it’s true that you are ugly. Is it true that you are unlovable? Was it your fault that you were bullied? When people treat you badly, is it because you let yourself be a victim? Thinking back on her memories with intention and purpose – really looking at the pebble carefully – Emily begins to answer the questions, and the pebble begins to lose its power.
“No,” she says. “It was a very painful experience to go through as a helpless child, but it’s over now. I am not a child anymore. I am not helpless. I can still cry and feel sorry for the pain that that I went through back then, but I am not that little girl anymore. At 64 years old, I don’t have to be controlled by what some nasty ten-year old girls said to me fifty years ago.”
In a way, Emily has taken the pebble out of her pocket, inspected it, stared at it, even tasted it – and she has decided that it’s just a pebble. She can keep it, or she can throw it into a pond, but she doesn’t have to let it hurt her anymore.
We all have pebbles from our past that we carry around with us. They are the memories of the hurts, and the failures, and the disappointments, and the losses we have suffered in life.
Some of us have pockets that are so full of pebbles that they weigh us down. Some of us have pebbles that chaff against our skin and cause us pain without us even remembering what they are. Some of us walk through life with resentment and anger about the pebbles that fill our pockets. But, for the most part, we don’t often take them out to look at them – to see what they really are. We don’t ask them questions. We don’t wonder how much more suffering we need to endure because of all those pebbles.
And one of the true things about these pebbles is that – if we never actually look at them, question them – in our minds, they can turn into boulders. Emily says that she thinks that’s what happened to her when she was in her forties. Her marriage was in trouble. Her daughter was going through a painful “I hate my mother” period of teenage rebellion. Her career was in a stalling pattern. And she just hated herself. All of those messages she had heard as a child about how awful and unlovable she was, they turned into a full-sized boulders standing between her and any possibility of happiness.
We usually think of Yom Kippur as a day for apologies and forgiveness. We apologize to God for the things we have done that we regret and we ask for God’s forgiveness. We apologize to the people we have hurt in our lives and we forgive the people who have hurt us. But there is one person to whom we usually forget to apologize, one person we forget to forgive – ourselves. There is enough pain in life without us continuing to hurt ourselves with the pebbles we carry around that makes us feel ugly, or unloved, or abandoned, or angry, or unhappy.
Yom Kippur is not only a day for unpacking our sins. It is also a day to notice our pebbles and to look at them carefully. It’s a day to decide how much you need that pebble – a day to decide if you want to keep carrying it around with you in your pocket.
Right now, I would like to ask you to pick one pebble that you are carrying with you today – a memory from your life, or a story you tell yourself, or an image you have of yourself that causes you suffering. Take a moment to choose one. Maybe it’s not “the big one.” Maybe it’s just a small one that you only notice sometimes.
In your mind, take that pebble out of your pocket. With your mind’s eye, look at it. Ask questions about it. “What is the negative story about myself that this pebble keeps telling me?” Ask yourself, “Do I believe that story? Does it control me? Do I want to keep it?” Take your time. There are many hours left in Yom Kippur (and in your life) to decide what you want to do with that pebble.
There is a word in the Jewish mystical tradition that can be applied to those pebbles we carry around with us. They are called “k’lipot,” which literally means “husks.” They are the barriers that prevent us from noticing and celebrating the holiness of the world and of ourselves. In Jewish mysticism, every act of holiness, every mitzvah we perform, is a step toward removing a k’lipah. When we treat others with kindness and dignity, we learn how to be kind to ourselves. When we engage in holy action, we shatter the pebbles and discover that they are only the hard, outer layers of the holiness that fills all of creation.
Today, Emily has seen her own daughter grow up to have children of her own. She is close with her daughter and her grandchildren. She tells me, though, about how, when her daughter was a little girl, she had the same frizzy hair that Emily had as a ten-year-old. She still remembers combing through her daughter’s hair every night as she helped her get ready for bed. She remembers her daughter’s tears, crying, “It hurts!” when the comb would get caught in the knots and snarls.
And Emily remembers how she said to her daughter, “I know it hurts. I’m so sorry. But you have luscious, beautiful, wonderful hair. It reminds me of the hair I had when I was a little girl. I did not know it then, but this thick, wavy, wild and woolly hair is a gift. It is God’s way of reminding you what a wild and wonderful person you are. It will always be here, right on the top of your head, to remind you of how much I love you, and how I want you always to love yourself and to know how beautiful you are – inside and out.”
When Emily thinks about that memory, she recognizes that the pebble – the one that keeps slapping up against her thigh as she walks in her blue jeans – has been transformed. Instead of seeing the pebble only as a memory of pain and self-loathing, she has turned it, in part, into a pathway toward love, compassion, and self-forgiveness. Day by day, she is shattering the pebble and discovering that, within it, there is holiness.
Our pebbles remind us about the pain we have experienced in life. But they also can remind us of how we can turned some of that pain into love. They remind us that our past does not have to rule our future. They remind us to be kind to ourselves, to forgive ourselves, and to know that we are beautiful and holy.
G’mar chatimah tovah.
May you be sealed for a good year.