Can you die of success?

In his piece, “The Patient As A Person,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says:

Striving for personal success is a legitimate and wholesome ingredient of the person. The danger begins when personal success becomes a way of thinking, the supreme standard of all values. Success as the object of supreme and exclusive concern is both pernicious and demonic. Such passion knows no limit. According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.

Heschel contends that “making money is expensive” and that “making money may cost us values that no money can buy.”

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A Perspective on Danger

Here’s an anecdote:

It was the summer of 2018 when I crashed an Aramaic summer camp for Maronite children living in northern Israel. I got to have a blast singing songs and playing games with the children who are growing up navigating a complex identity with an extremely fraught history in a pretty volatile region.

One day during that camp, I decided to ask an 11-year-old girl named Marie who lives just a few kilometres away from the border with Lebanon, “Who do you think is in greatest need of our prayers?”

The preteen immediately answered, “The kids of Florida.”

“Florida?” I repeated curiously.

“Yes,” she told me. “Because of the school shootings there.”

I was quite struck by this answer to the extent that I still remember it.

It is interesting to consider this perspective on danger.

After all, I am sure that, were I interviewing 11-year-olds in Florida about who most needs our prayers that someone there would have told me, “The kids of the Middle East.”

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

In his splendid essay “On the Meaning of Sunday,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote about how the early Christians would say, “Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.”

Take a look at how he describes this existential priority and what it means in the lives of those who hold to it:

“Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live.” This is not a labored obedience to an ecclesiastical prescription considered as some external precept, but is instead the expression of an interior duty and, at the same time, of a personal decision. It refers to that which has become the supporting nucleus of one’s existence, of one’s entire being, and it documents what has become so important as to need to be fulfilled even in the case of danger of death, imparting as it does a real assurance and internal freedom. To those who so expressed themselves, it would have seemed manifestly absurd to guarantee survival and external tranquility for themselves at the price of the renunciation of this vital ground. […] For them it was not a question of a choice between one precept and another, but rather of a choice between all that gave meaning and consistency to life and a life devoid of meaning.

I often think about this passage when reflecting on contemporary Christians who risk their lives to go to church in countries where there is severe persecution and repression.

There is indeed something luminous in the witness of those who would risk their lives to affirm the values that make life altogether precious in the first place.

It is a profound and potentially orienting question to contemplate: What is it in our lives without which our survival has no value?

Photo: Maronite Church in Kfar Baram in northern Israel in summer 2017

“I should be dead, so what’s the worst that can happen?”

Recently, I spoke with Ottawa resident Darryl Sequeira about his near-death experience fifteen years ago.

In September 2005, Darryl was a 20-year-old university student in Saint John, New Brunswick.

He got drunk at a party one night and was passed out in the back seat of the car of a friend’s friend.

Unbeknownst to Darryl, the driver was also drunk and so, “It was the wrong car to fall asleep in.”

When the drunk driver crashed, the driver broke both his legs, the front seat passenger broke his right arm, the guy to Darryl’s left broke his left arm and the guy to Darryl’s right managed to get just a few cuts and bruises.

Because Darryl had been the only one asleep in the vehicle, he suffered the worst consequences. The car flipped over three times and he flew forward.

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“Take risks, not care.”

Canon Andrew White, formerly the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, has a chapter in his memoir titled, “Don’t Take Care; Take Risks.”

I’ll admit that I usually say, “Take care” to someone before hanging up the phone or getting out of an Uber. Nevertheless, the first time I heard the motto, “Don’t Take Care; Take Risks”, it struck me as better and truer.

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A Child’s Right to Die

Janusz Korczak is a name I wish everyone could know. A Polish Jewish author, pedagogue, and orphanage director, he refused offers for his own safety during the Second World War and was deported, along with all of the children of the orphanage, to the Nazi death camp Treblinka where he and they were killed in 1942.

Over the years, I have come upon monuments commemorating Korczak and the children at Treblinka, in Warsaw, and at Yad Vashem in Israel.

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