About six years ago, in an act of confused desperation, I awkwardly left my Acting I class early and went to Hillel to attend Rosh Hashanah services for the first time in my life.
I had just started my first year of college—and was suffering from a debilitating sense of guilt. The summer before, every time I’d hit a pothole or a speed bump I’d look behind me to make sure I hadn’t actually killed someone. Occasionally, I’d circle back around just to make sure. Multiple times. And then in a panicked, fearful daze I’d Google “hit and runs in Atlanta” and see if any of them were near where I was.
This wasn’t new for me. The first time I remembered having this specific sort of debilitating long-lasting “guilt attack” was a few years prior, at the beginning of high school, though I had always been anxious as a kid. I freaked out when I turned a penny green after learning that it was illegal to deface US currency, and felt nauseated whenever I saw FBI copyright warnings pop up on the VHS movies we’d rent from Blockbuster.
The problem was, as much as I would try to find ways to sooth my fears, a new one would immediately take its place. No hit and runs that day in Atlanta? Fine. But I sure as hell didn’t deserve to be going to Swarthmore College, because I had had a sip of beer and wasn’t yet 21.
The High Holidays initially offered relief. I could apologize to anyone for anything and it wouldn’t be weird, because it was a religious obligation. Plus, the prayers specified sins committed in thought and in deed, known and unknown. It covered everything my brain could think of.