MY PHONE DOESN’T KNOW ME AND I HAVE QUESTIONS, TOO
By Rabbi David Kosak
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My phone and I are going through a breakup; it claims it doesn’t recognize me anymore.
It all started on August 29th, the day Bell’s Palsy hit my face. Suddenly, my face was terribly lopsided, like one of those melted watch faces in the famous Salvador Dali painting, drooping over a table edge and a tree branch, like a chocolate bar left to warm in the sun.
At exactly the moment that half my face became paralyzed, my phone lost its ability to recognize me. In other words, Face ID, the AI algorithm that had memorized my face, via the dozens of mathematical data points that it uses to determine that I am me, suddenly decided that I didn’t look like me anymore. Now I was forced to enter my 6-digit passcode every time I needed access to my device.
The nice thing with AI and neural networks is that the more times I entered my passcode, the more the phone seemed to learn that this new, misshapen face actually was the same David Kosak from before my palsy. Until it forgot again.
I was getting laser treatment, which apparently shortens the severity and duration of palsy, and my dental technician requested that I shave my beard so that the low-power laser wouldn’t be absorbed by my beard hair. Despite Apple’s claims about its FaceID technology recognizing a person with or without a beard, my phone really didn’t know what to do when I was both clean-shaven and had a drooping face. It took another four days for it to relent, yet even now, it occasionally doesn’t quite trust that this new David is the same as the old David. Now that my beard is coming back in, the damned device has thrown up its silicon arms in complete frustration.
I don’t blame it—these same questions have crossed my heart and mind numerous times in the intervening days, questions about identity, whether and when and how do we actually change, and if our attachment to what neurologists call the default self is merely an illusion.
We live in an age where personal identity is extremely important to us. As it has become more central to our sense of self-definition, the very categories of identity have become more fluid, bursting out into a new variety of hues and colors. So many of our culture wars are fueled by this, but something much more personal and essential is at stake, something as close as our own skins. We clutch tight to our identities as though they can save us from the shifting sands of life itself. Yet looking into the mirror of my Palsy, my face, the most intimate address of identity refused to return my gaze. Instead, someone else, a rude impostor, stared back at me, close enough to me to be even more disturbing. Yet unrecognizable by me, or my phone.
I had disappeared. Or had I?
Let’s return to that Salvador Dali painting with the drooping watch faces; it is entitled The Persistence of Memory. This famous surrealist painting struggles with the same questions we each ask, at least at some point in our life. What is real, and what is imaginary, a mirror in the painting demands? How can we distinguish between our dream stories and our unadorned, innermost self?
Salvador Dali seems to be saying that because time melts away like sun-baked chocolate, it matters less than memory. Yet is our memory—all that remains of our past lives—any more stable than time itself? The memory of what my face used to be was on shaky ground.
These are the sort of questions we might ask at a midnight bull session with old friends over a glass, after the death of a loved one, or perhaps on the floor of a philosophy 3 department. Yet looking into the mirror at my Bell’s Palsy, and listening to my voice, distorted and slurred by reduced motor control, these were some of the least abstract and most disorienting of questions. I didn’t recognize myself any more than my phone did!
Bell’s Palsy is a stark manner with which to come to this realization, yet we have all had moments when we suddenly notice some behavior we have engaged in that embarrasses the positive self-image we have of ourselves—that very strong desire we all possess to imagine that we are good people. We experience shame in those moments, when our carefully cultivated personas tumble off us, like a masquerade mask at the end of the ball. Not only do we not recognize the reality of who we are, which includes moments of failure, but we distance ourselves from them. Or try to. Our first instinct is to clutch at the falling mask, prop it back on our faces, even if it hangs off-kilter. Better to be sideways than lost. We want to get back to who we thought we were. We want our stories back.
In rabbinical school, I once led a Passover seder in a jail in Southern California. The entire experience of voluntarily being in lock-up was as surrealistic as the Dali painting. These were violent men, some had murdered, in whose midst I put my personal safety.
Of the many things I learned that day was how essential it was for the inmates to think of themselves as good people who had one bad day that landed them in prison—and how important it was for them that I see them the same way. They put their best face on for me—and more importantly, for themselves. People who can’t maintain this illusion, the one provided by the pretty enough mask we each create, are in danger of falling prey to feelings of self-loathing, which is perhaps a worse jail cell than prison. It is as though the moment of shame they experienced when they finally saw some dark corner of themselves has been set to eternal replay. Lots of us do that, and it’s the definition of living hell. So our masks serve us well when they save us from that fate.
Yet during the worst of my Bell’s Palsy, all I could do was question who I was. And more profoundly, who I might be transforming into WITHOUT MY CONSENT! The face I saw in the mirror was not me. The slurred jumbled voice I heard in my ears was not mine. They were literally and objectively less attractive than the mask I identified as myself, my normal, pre-Palsy self. Yet if this face and voice were not mine – not me – whose were they?
Who was I?
This entire episode—and my recovery is still ongoing—was more emotionally straining than I would have imagined. I’ve been terrified. It freaked me out, folks! Painful and unsettling. Bell’s Palsy is a temporary thief of our precious default identity. When I saw a young child playing on my block, I was literally unable to smile and share in her joy. Take that in – I was unable to smile. My ability to smile was stolen from me. I’m someone who naturally smiles at little children, I like to act goofy with them. But my face was frozen, unyielding to my commands. That piece of my self-identity? Gone for the interval. Only time will tell if I will ever be able to smile again. In the meantime, all I can do is grieve its loss.
Yet ultimately, my Bell’s Palsy was a liberating reminder that I am not my default self. I have a friend who says that his default setting is to think about his own needs first, before any others. Selfish and self-centered, he works on himself every day to not be that person. So, maybe change is possible, the deep sort of change that Yom Kippur invites us to engage in?
Before going any further, let’s make sure we are all on the same page with what is meant by the default self, or the default mode network. For you science nerds, the default self or default mode network primarily consists of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). More compelling than that science definition is one proffered by the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett, who says that the self is the “center of narrative gravity.” The stories we tell about ourselves, the way we self-assess, and self-critique—that is where our self resides. Most importantly, Jewish mystics, Buddhist monks, and now neuroscientists all agree that the default self is an illusion. Our identities, so precious to us, don’t really exist, except in the way that we keep telling the story of who we are over and over again, like that crazy uncle we all have.
And that brings me to some insights I would like to share with you about teshuvah and the difficulty of change. When we discuss teshuvah, it’s important to recognize that our tradition possesses both a foundational and an aspirational understanding of what teshuvah is.
The foundational understanding, considered a mitzvah, is portrayed in Rambam’s classic four-step process—we recognize our failings, feel remorse, apologize, and resolve not to repeat our error; the way his system works best is when it is focused on repairing our relationships that have been damaged by our words or actions. If all we do this year is repair a damaged relationship, dayenu. We have met our obligation. We have made things better.
However, Judaism also possesses an aspirational understanding of teshuvah, which posits that we can change more fundamentally when we can return to a pure place, what Shlomo Carlebach once called “the land of your soul.” This aspirational notion of teshuvah holds us to a higher standard, which claims we can change ourselves in an essential way.
This aspirational notion of teshuvah, however, is something most of us don’t believe in. It requires that we trust life, God, others, even ourselves, in a way that is foreign to us. It is why in the public sphere, we are often unwilling to forgive a celebrity who has said the wrong thing.
By the time we reach our middle years, most of us have learned how very difficult it is to change ourselves in any meaningful way. On Rosh Hashanah, when I davened at home, an older friend came by to pray and meditate with me on a bench beneath a large pine tree. At one point, the friend intoned, “I’m sixty f-ing x, this is who I am.” How much change can we reasonably ask of ourselves? Are some changes beyond our capacity?
Part of the reason we doubt how much we can actually change is because, in our experience, it so often seems that we don’t really change ourselves, so much as change happens to us.
I still haven’t given up on the aspirational notion of teshuvah, even though change is slow, hard, and often not forthcoming. How often have you screwed up in exactly the same way? Even if we only hold by Rambam’s foundational requirement, I bet most of us keep screwing up in the exact same way. Just ask my wife.
No matter how often we recognize our failings, feel remorse, apologize, and resolve not to repeat our error, Rambam’s model is hit or miss.
Rambam predicated his insights on assumptions that are also shared by CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. If we can change the way we think, that will change our behavior, which in turn will make us into a different person.
Let’s be real for a moment. Does that match your experience? For some people, and for some issues, CBT (I know I am slurring, I am not saying CBD, or THC for that matter!) does work. But so often it falls flat. We keep ending up in the same spot we were. Discouraging, right?
Why is it that Maimonides’ venerable approach to teshuvah so often doesn’t work at creating lasting change? For one thing, Rambam, Freud, and others begin with an assumption that insight therapy is beneficial. We realize who we are, how our mindset and our history have influenced us, and why our behaviors have been problematic. These insights then presumably start a cascade of enduring changes.
Except that too often, insight therapy, and therefore insight teshuvah, don’t actually clear the path for us.
Why is that?
Here are two possible reasons, although there are probably others:
First, where we really live is in our emotions – our hearts – and our bodies or muscle memory. Insight doesn’t readily touch those parts of us, because the thinking mind is the last evolutionary addition to us. It is possible to have a great many insights that, while true, don’t touch us in the deepest place where we really reside—in our lev shalem—our hearts and our bodies, where so many of our experiences are stored.
The second reason that insight teshuvah has limited ability to change us goes back to the default network mode and the default self I mentioned earlier— the seat of our narrative identities. Even though the mystics and the neuroscientists claim that our very sense of self is an illusion, it is the most seductive illusion possible. We are so attached to the story we tell of who we are, that powerful and substantial change frightens us. When it comes on suddenly, as it did with my Bell’s Palsy, it was overwhelmingly frightening. Where did I go? Who was I? And most importantly, dear God, give me back my old self. I don’t want change. Not this change, nor the pain it comes with.
At the same time, the Bell’s also made it startlingly clear that the story I told myself of who I am—is at best provisional and can be ripped away in an instant. U’n’taneh tokef. We are not in control, even of our own stories. How’s that for a counter-cultural belief?
Let’s unpack this paradox a bit more by turning to a quote from scholar, author, and meditator Chris Wallis, who wrote in The Recognition Sutras that:
“The central tension of spiritual life is this: the urge, desire, even need we feel to transform ourselves and the equally pressing urge, desire, or need to accept and love ourselves exactly as we are. These two vectors of the spiritual life seem to be at odds, don’t they? It appears that you could do one but not both. You could either change, or you could honor yourself exactly as you are at this moment. The paradox is that we are apparently being asked to do both. Simultaneously…
…[W]hen you open to the possibility of honoring yourself exactly as you are at every moment, that attitudinal stance necessarily includes honoring your transformation, because you are not a static entity! Truly accepting yourself as you are clearly encompasses accepting change. But what kind of change? With self-acceptance, you no longer seek to force change upon yourself out of a sense of not being good enough; rather, the change and growth of which we speak is simply what naturally wants to happen. In other words, accepting yourself includes accepting whatever Life most naturally wants to do through you, moment by moment.”
That’s what my Bell’s Palsy forced upon me. The temporary paralysis is what Life wanted to do through me, moment by moment, immediately before the High Holidays. Preparing for and leading the Yamim Noraim is a core part of my identity as a pulpit rabbi. But Life wanted to freeze me out of what I believed was my purpose. What meaning can I – or we – take from this?
Foundational teshuvah, which we all need to engage in, requires that we take stock of ourselves as we are, and make amends to those we harm. But the deepest part of teshuvah and of Yom Kippur is that this is the day on which we practice dying. This is not meant to be morbid, and throughout the day, we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life. Rather, we rehearse our death because, in actuality, every one of us is dying minute by minute. Our illusion of a solid self is just that, an illusion, for at this very moment, constant changes are occurring in our bodies, minds, and souls. Everything is passing away.
The deepest form of teshuvah is recognizing that change happens to us, constantly, and that once we learn to accept that with grace, we encounter a ceaseless well of compassion that we can offer both to ourselves and others, because we are no longer trapped in the past. We accept the reality of who we are, and that actually changes us. Tera Brach is a psychologist and advanced meditator. She once shared an insight from one of her teachers: “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.”
If you think about it, you may discover that often, the reason that we hurt others is because we are so attached to an image of ourselves that is nothing but an illusion. Our thoughts, our beliefs, even our values—these are all brittle pieces of a story that we tell ourselves and we constantly try to force life to fit our story, our identity.
I once watched a congregant at a previous synagogue argue with the entire board, convinced that she had a moral insight that the rest of us lacked. She argued so relentlessly, I imagine, because in the story she told about her default self, she was righteous, a warrior for truth. Her identity was deeply bound up in that center of narrative gravity, in which she stood for all that was noble. Not unlike the inmates I met in that Southern California prison so long ago, she was so attached to viewing herself as a good person, as opposed to a person through whom life flows, that on the evening in question, she became a bad person.
My face practiced a little death. Half my face froze, dead. The other half, still alive and able to witness its mirror self in suspension. Death was practiced upon me. Change was forced upon me – unwanted change – and I had to, if you’ll pardon, face it.
But I did. It was a choice. I could have ignored this change; instead, I took it in, studied it, and reflected. This is the process of change. It begins with acceptance.
Yom Kippur offers us a day to reflect, to repent, but more than anything, an opportunity to accept ourselves for our default selves, even as we realize that this default self is an illusion. For in recognizing the story of ourselves as an illusion, we open the way to envision the self we are willing to work to become. Through this death of our old selves, we open the way to rebirth.
We all have moments in our lives where we get a glimpse of who we might become if we do not change, and who we might become if we dare to change. A flash of someone older crossing our path, a doppelganger of a possible future self. These are the signs that life offers us as opportunities to accept the challenge to change.
Often, the thing that stops us from trying to change is fear – fear that we won’t be accepted if we do. This is the terror that tormented my mind when my AI-driven phone refused to accept me, refused to recognize me, after the change that was forced upon me. Yes, I was frustrated, but more than that, I was afraid. If my own phone won’t recognize me, who will?
Was I lost to those I loved and the world I know? What I learned, from reflection and the teachings of the Torah, is this: change is inevitable. Trusting is a choice.
This year, I trust that we will all embrace the dictates of foundational teshuvah so that we can repair our relationships with others. I also hope that we will have the moral grandeur to pursue aspirational teshuvah, the sort that knows we must accept ourselves as we are, with the deepest acts of self-love of which we are capable, even while we work to completely transform ourselves.
The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.
G’mar chatimah tovah.