A Life Defined as Ends, not Means (Yom Kippur Morning 2019/5780)
(Various sized notes/papers)
I don’t know if you can pull all these things out from the bottom of your purse like I can – and off your desk, your kitchen counter, out of your pockets. . .
To-do lists. Everywhere. Work lists, shopping lists, people to call.
Or maybe you have an email inbox like mine: where every 15th email is from myself, subject line, in caps: TO DO.
Maybe you send yourself texts, fill your task list on your google calendar, maybe write them on your hand – I don’t know.
Projects to finish, supplies needed, What to pick up at Trader Joe’s, household tasks to complete, forms to fill out, dentist appointments to reschedule. . .
There’s always some little post-it in your pocket that says: Target, remember blidibladm and you can’t read it or remember. What did I need at Target? Was it detergent?
Perhaps, years from now, an archeologist could go through all of your many physical and virtual lists – all the things you needed to remember to do for the day, for the week, for the month – and learn about your life.
The question is: What on your to-do lists would help anyone understand what you are living for? About what gives you purpose in life?
When you look over all the lists and notes to self, how many of the items are there because they are truly fulfilling to you?
None? Do you have lists everywhere reminding yourself of things to be sure to do and not one of those items is related to why you are here? what brings meaning to your life? what nurtures your soul?
Well – that might be a problem.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I remember one of the physical therapists who worked with the inpatients. She would ask them: “So, before we begin, can you share why you are doing all this? Why have you had this surgery and why are you going through these many weeks of difficult physical therapy?
A number of elderly patients would say: “I want to be able to go home and wash my own dishes.” Or “I want to be able to change my sheets by myself.”
And she would respond: “Nope! Nobody is living life so that they can wash dishes or do laundry. That is not a reason to live. You have to do better than that!”
When I first heard her go through this routine, it sounded very harsh. Wasn’t living independently enough of a reason to go through all this?
But as I continued to think about it, I realized that she was right. Cleaning your own toilet is a terrible answer to “Why am I alive?” It is – in fact – a means to an end.
She would continue to push until she got them to share something of substance. Maybe their goal as they go through these difficult physical trials is going home to read new books and learn new things, spending time with grandchildren, taking care of pets, volunteering for a cause, voting in the next election. These are their actual core goals they are working so hard to return to. Why do they need so much coaching and direct challenging to figure it out? Why do we?
Our checklists and to-do lists are filled with means to an end. But where is – and what is – the actual end that we’re working toward?
Means alone do not a life make. Where in your reminder notes is the thing that gives you meaning? Where is the passion that drives you? The skill or gift or talent that you love to use to enhance the lives of others? The dream you would love to realize? It could be any number of things – but it is most likely not defrosting the chicken or picking up the dry cleaning.
In the Biblical book of Kohelet or Ecclesiastes, we read, “Whatever it is that you find within you to do well, with your talent, strength and passion – you should do it. For once you are gone, you will not be able to pursue it.”
This is a central message of our day of Yom Kippur. The timer is ticking on our lives – to what are we devoting the precious hours and days that we will never get back?
Israeli-born Harvard professor of positive psychology, Tal Ben-Shachar, taught this in his book Happier: “To be happy, it is not enough to experience our life as meaningful on the general level of the big picture. We need to find meaning on the [very] specific level of our daily existence as well.”
What might this look like? Your big picture life dream might be: “I am truly motivated in life by the thought of helping us move toward world peace.” Cool! So what are you doing on a daily basis to further your vision?
How can you break down that large, overarching dream into small, doable pieces? Regularly weaving them into your weekly tasks. Ensuring they appear on your list or calendar?
Your focus may be parenting your children. Is your week a constant blur of checklists and chauffeur duties? Or is there time set aside each day to be fully present with them? To enjoy them for who they are. To simply step back and bear witness to their uniqueness, their perspectives, their life passions.
You went into a field that was of great interest to you and then discovered, as time went on, that your days were actually filled with administrative duties, logistical details, online paperwork. Is there a way to remember what appealed to you about your career and make adjustments? Regularly scheduling on your calendar the part of the job you love for a little bit of time each day or each week?
We read in the Torah that Abraham died old / and contented. The obvious question of our tradition: What does it mean that when he died, he was content? Nachmanides, a commentator from the 13th century, teaches: “Abraham died content because he saw all the longings of his heart come to pass.” In other words, Abraham tended not just to his physical needs, but nurtured his soul and pursued what truly brought him fulfillment.
The journalist David Brooks spent much of his adult life focused on furthering his career, publishing books, writing columns in the New York Times, making a name for himself. He calls this phase of his life, “The First Mountain.” His personal career goal was, for years, the one and only peak he could see and toward which he climbed.
Then his marriage fell apart – he had never really focused time and efforts on his family. It was only when he found himself on his own, removed from his wife and children, that he hit emotional bottom. He realized that he had been living to feed his ego but his inner being had been starved.
He began opening his eyes to the people around him – not as simply tools to move himself forward but as human beings to be appreciated. He started thinking about faith and what he believed about his place and his piece in the larger world.
In Brooks’ words: Something has to happen / for you to . . . live at the center of yourself and not at the surface of yourself.
This focus on your spiritual center, relationships, and the major concerns of life is what Brooks calls, “The second mountain.”
And the pursuit of climbing and living on this second mountain aligns with what research has proven: A true, full sense of human happiness and contentment is a result of belonging to and serving something beyond yourself.
As Brooks describes it: “living within your heart and soul, . . . longing for others and . . . longing to do something good.”
Living deeply can be dismissed and ignored. . . for a time. But eventually our deep-seated need to have our lives truly matter to family, to friends, to community must be addressed. There is only so long we can be happy before a gaping emptiness emerges.
This is the time to make teshuvah, to turn ourselves, our efforts, our time toward what brings us meaning, fulfillment and purpose.
Can we make adjustments so that our life’s priorities become visible in our planners and calendars and scribbled lists?
If you don’t have cereal for a couple of days, there won’t be any lasting effect. If you starve your soul for days or weeks, it can prove truly devastating to your well-being.
In 1912, women across the country were fighting for acknowledgement of their right to vote. As part of that campaign, Jewish activist and labor leader, Rose Schneiderman, gave the following speech at an Ohio rally:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist – the right to [a full] life as the rich woman has the right to life and the sun and music and art. There is nothing you have that the humblest worker has not a right to also have. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.
— Rose Schneiderman, 1912.
Bread – but also Roses. This became a widely known slogan and even the title of a popular song.
A life that is strictly about acquiring bread is not a life. It is an existence. Life contains more. Life involves the pursuit of beauty, of relationship, of fulfillment. Life involves an understanding of our own heart / and being able to use that to connect with others – to leave this world a little better than we found it.
In this new year, may our to-do lists not only contain bread. But roses, too.