“Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
Accounting for existence
I recently came across this intriguing excerpt from David Velleman’s paper, “Against the Right to Die.”
Once a person is given the choice between life and death, he will rightly be perceived as the agent of his own survival. Whereas his existence is ordinarily viewed as a given for him – as a fixed condition with which he must cope – formally offering him the option of euthanasia will cause his existence thereafter to be viewed as his doing.
The problem with this perception is that if others regard you as choosing a state of affairs, they will hold you responsible for it; and if they hold you responsible for a state of affairs, they can ask you to justify it. Hence if people ever come to regard you as existing by choice, they may expect you to justify your continued existence. If your daily arrival in the office is interpreted as meaning that you have once again declined to kill yourself, you may feel obliged to arrive with an answer to the question ‘Why not?’.
The Pricelessness of Tomorrow
The other day, I saw this social media post by a young artist named DJ Kraz.
In one tweet, he compellingly shows the overwhelming gift and value of every tomorrow to which we arrive.
“Tomorrow is worth more than 10 million dollars.”
Does it change the way live?
“How to Use Your Eyes”
The other day I heard a story from the life of Helen Keller that I had never heard before.
In it, she recalls asking a friend who had returned from a walk in the woods what this friend had seen. The friend replied, “Nothing in particular.” Helen was dumbfounded and wondered, “How is it possible to walk for an hour and see nothing worthy of note?”
This anecdote whet my appetite and I had to look for these insights of hers in context. To my delight, I found them contained within her extraordinary short essay titled, “Three Days to See.”
Here it is:
If you died today, what are the last words of yours that your loved ones might find in your bag, on your computer, in a text message, or on your desk?
One of the victims of the recent tragedy in Meron reportedly gave his friend an envelope and told him not to open it until Sunday.
Rabbi Shimon Matlon could never have imagined that he would die that very night and that his note would be opened not only to his friend but to the world.
According to this source, the letter said:
Does your education fix your mind on eternal life?
In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.
There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.Continue reading
Responding to Death with Poetry
My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:
A Tribute to My Grandmother
I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one
My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be
When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’
So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’
I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy
My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever
In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail
I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave
Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined
My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways
Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.
In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.
The Task Report in Death
This evening I’ve been reading Tomáš Halík’s book, I Want You To Be: On the God of Love in which the thirteenth chapter is titled, “Stronger than Death.”
In this chapter, the Czech priest, philosopher, and Templeton Prize laureate discusses how, “in order to perceive death as a gift, one must first deeply experience life as a gift.”
Gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift but, importantly, life is not only a gift but also a responsibility. Halik, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, speaks of life as an assignment:
Death is not a mere returning of the gift of life. Only loans are returned, and to return a gift is always regarded as an insult to the donor. The entrance ticket to life (think of the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov) is not returnable. Life is not just a gift; it is also an assignment. At the moment of death, the handing on of the life that was given to us as an opportunity and entrusted to us as a task is—in religion terms—a sort of completed task report, the hour of truth about the extent to which we have fulfilled or squandered the opportunity we were given. Aversion to that religious concept of death is possibly only assisted by arguments from the arsenal of materialistically interpreted science, although in fact it is more likely based on the anxiety aroused by the need to render an account to a Judge who cannot be bribed or influenced. Compared to that the atheist view that everything comes to an end at death is a comforting dose of opium!
How often do we consider giving God an inventory about how we have spent our lifetime?
To be accountable for our days is a basis for man’s proper dignity.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”
And responsibility is not only a matter of what we do but, most importantly, of who we become through the moral footprint of our deeds in this world.
Photo: With Fr. Tomáš Halík in Prague in April 2016
“Dying People Are Not Afraid of Dying”
Yesterday, I was flipping through a new book by Rabbi Steve Leder titled, The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. The book emerged from a popular sermon the rabbi delivered about death on Yom Kippur, from the rabbi’s extensive experience accompanying the dying and their grieving families and, importantly, from the fruit of his own experience suffering the loss of his father.
I read the initial chapters and this paragraph in particular really struck me:
Whoever wrote the third chapter of Ecclesiastes (later made famous by the Byrds) was right. There really is a time for everything. Most people are ready for death the way we are all ready for sleep after a long and exhausting day. We just want to pull the covers up around our aching heads and settle in for the peace of it all. We are not anxious about sleeping. We are not depressed about it. We are not afraid of it. Disease, age, and life itself prepare us for death. There is a time for everything, and when it is our time to die, death is as natural a thing as life itself. Consider this very good news for those of us who fear death. Dying people are not afraid of dying. If you are afraid of dying, it is not your day. Anxiety is for the living. So if you are worried and anxious about dying, you’re not dying. Which means you have time to let death teach you about living and loving your life.
Do you have any reason to dispute Rabbi Leder on this?
If not, does this explanation change your understanding of death?
Lastly, does hearing of the peace that comes with rest alter the anxiety of living at all?