The Common Good

'Apology Porn' and Yom Kippur

If there had been a way to power-wash my brain, I would have done it.

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The words, images, and emotions left with me after I watched a half-dozen video clips of actress Mackenzie Phillips' interview with Oprah Winfrey earlier this week are something I wish I'd never had in my imagination. I regretted watching. I regretted knowing.

I wanted to take a spiritual bubble bath.

One blogger I read regularly suggested that Ms. Winfrey would have done a public service to follow the interview with a short montage of kittens and baby bunnies playing in a field of daisies just to help clear the horror out of our minds.

If you don't know the Phillips' story, please, I beg you, don't go Google it. You don't want to know.

If you, like me, were foolish enough to be a voyeur in the Phillips family's nightmare, well, we deserve what we got. We shouldn't have been able to know something that deeply personal and broken and awful.

So, now that some of us do know, where do we put it? What do we do in the future when a train wreck of human suffering presents itself for our entertainment?

And for those of us who fancy ourselves people of faith, what do we do with what The Rabbi (Irwin Kula, the wise and kindly soul who makes frequent appearances in my writings) calls "apology porn"?

I talked to The Rabbi on Thursday about this cultural problem and, it being the time in the Jewish calendar for repentance and soul searching in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he had some timely and practical advice.

Our attraction to "apology porn," these big, public mea culpas and confessions of sins that are so very none of our business, are an indication of our collective need both to be forgiven and to offer forgiveness for wrongs in our own lives that we'd rather not think about, The Rabbi says.

"If we took a spiritual MRI of the American soul, we'd probably see an incredible yearning for being forgiven and granting forgiveness," he said. "That's expressing itself in this incredibly voyeuristic and confessional culture of ours."

"What we have to do is keep ratcheting it up so that we actually are titillated otherwise we become bored," The Rabbi says. "And the tragedy of that is, of course, that it doesn't do anything for us. Actually what it means is that there are more and more places in our lives where we're not having the genuine experience. So, we're externalizing."

"The higher the extreme apology is necessary, the more it's an indication that the culture itself is losing a genuine forgiveness. It's that kind of karmic imbalance."

Like any kind of pornography, apology porn only increases our appetite for more dramatic and, frankly, icky public confessions.

After learning the Phillips family's terrible secret, what's next? The mind reels.

What should we do now?

The Rabbi had some instruction, both kind and deeply practical.

"Look, there's a natural predisposition to be attracted to this. It's no different than the car accident on the road. We all have that inside of us. The real question is, what are we going to do about it since we feel dirty about it."

The Rabbi suggests the following:

We really can turn it off and make a decision not to look. And if we really didn't look, the traffic would flow better. And if we really didn't look, it wouldn't be reported the same way because that's the way the market works. That's what real freedom is. And with real freedom comes real responsibility.

So, let's say we can't help ourselves and we are gonna look, OK, because that's the way we are as human beings. So, then we can make a decision not to talk about it the next day and make it the major topic of conversation our friends or with our colleagues at the water cooler or at the Starbucks, because that creates a toxicity in the culture. That creates a kind of bad karma itself. It's not simply your having the experience but it becomes the cultural conversation as opposed to all the really important things going on in our lives.

Finally, let's say we have to talk about it. At the very least we should recognize that even in something toxic, what a deeply spiritual person does is try to redeem it. What we could do is make the decision to watch it and realize we can't help talking about it, but we're also going to look in our own lives for where there is someone I need to ask forgiveness from or where there is someone I need to forgive.

Unfortunately, I've already done the first two, and so now, as Yom Kippur approaches, I'm trying to implement the third.

The Rabbi said something else that rang powerfully true. While most of us have not and will not ever cross the kind of lines that were crossed in Mackenzie Phillips' family, but part of what we find compelling about such a horror story is that we have -- all of us -- crossed some line that we shouldn't have.

In this season of repentance, atoning and, hopefully, forgiveness, taking that kind of stock of our own stories may be the first step in creating a culture where real forgiveness can happen. Individually and as a people.

It's time to tune out and turn inward.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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