Waking Up Alive

In school, from an early age, Joe learned how stuff works. Joe learned how pulleys work, how electrical circuits work, how cells divide and how neurons process thoughts. He learned that the whole world is a big machine, and we are all little machines inside it.

Joe graduated college, got a job, got married, had kids.

Then Joe had a crisis. He needed help. He picked up books of today’s most popular genre—self-help. Lots of them. The books told him he has a soul, he has purpose, that’s there’s something beyond just being a pleasure-seeking machine.

Joe felt better. He was able to go back to work, keep his marriage and enjoy his kids.

There are many things the world needs. It needs nothing more than a soul.

Joe needed to know he has a soul.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why the World Needs a Soul”
from the “Chassidic Thought” series
Chabad.org

Some people don’t know this. Some people will never learn this. Even for people who do know that they have a soul and that life has a broader purpose beyond the day-to-day grind, any pain that is strong enough or lasts long enough will knock that information right out of awareness.

And all that you’ll be about to think or feel is the pain.

Fortunately, Joe was able to overcome that, as were the equally fictional Julie and Sasha in Rabbi Freeman’s tale (which I highly encourage you to read in its entirety since it makes many good points).

Yesterday, I talked about how experiencing chronic emotional and spiritual pain can make it very difficult to connect to your purpose and to cling to the awareness of your soul in any meaningful way. Actually, that kind of pain makes it hard to even get up in the morning and care about whether you have a purpose or not. No matter how hard the soul strives to reach its Creator, the weight of a thousand, thousand failures, disappointments and criticisms presses the soul back into the dirt like the hand of a thoughtless child crushing a bug.

Yesterday, I also said this:

Supposedly, you can only go down so far before you start to rise up again. There is a principle in some areas of Judaism that says, “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.” Of course, that “ascent” might not occur until the world to come, which means you’re already dead and your life on earth hasn’t worked out at all. Besides, it’s just a saying. You can’t find it in the Bible.

There is an increasingly mythical sacred person buried under endless tons of rock, dirt, and pain. They keep trying to dig their way out of their cave-in using only splintered, bloody stumps of what’s left of their fingers. The light is dimming and the air is running out. When the Divine spark is extinguished, what will be left of the person who was supposed to be holy? When the abyss finally claims its victim, will God still be there to watch?

Is God watching when we’re about to surrender to the final abyss and does He see how tiny and fragile the flicking spark of our soul is under the oppression of darkness and hopelessness? Is He waiting for our ascent after the descent as well? Is He waiting in vain?

It is said “that which doesn’t kill you will usually try again.” But that assumes whatever is trying to kill you will succeed. What if it just hurts instead?

“What is unique about a Jewish martyr,” wrote Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, “is that he would rather stay alive.”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Martyrs for Life”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

You feel the Divine spark growing weaker within you. The light dims. Suddenly, you realize that you are in complete darkness. Your lungs labor for air and then there is none and your chest sucks in only dirt and dust and gravel. You close your eyes in anguish one last time welcoming a final oblivion.

But the next morning you wake up and realize you’re alive. On days like that, I still say:

I gratefully thank you living and existing King for restoring my soul to me with compassion.

Abundant is Your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani

Somehow, the weight is still there but it’s lighter, just light enough to allow my chest to expand, let my lungs fill with air, let me exhale, and then inhale again. I open my eyes and I can see light. I sit up in bed, put my feet on the floor. And I can stand.

Why am I thanking God for being alive?

Because I have a soul and regardless of what the rest of me feels like, my soul is part of God and she (in Hebrew, words have gender and the Hebrew word for soul is feminine) thanks her maker for the restoration of life and the ability to continue in the service of the King.

Regardless of what the rest of me feels.

The need for meaning in our personal lives, the sense of responsibility for the ecology of our planet and the respect for the dignity of every human life—all these are sacrosanct today. Which is a good thing, because without them we would have destroyed ourselves in the century just past.

Yet they are entirely hollow. More than that: they are in utter conflict with the materialist concept of reality that we are taught in school and practice in the laboratory.

In short, we suffer an aching disconnect between our brains and our soul.

Our soul believes life has purpose and meaning, while our brains consider our bodies to be no more than a walking water-bottle of biochemical reactions. We teach small children to cry over the future of the elephants, the pandas and the blue whale, that they have a responsibility to save the planet and sustain it, and then we teach them that all this arrived due to a big bang and a series of accidents. We will not tolerate any voice that suggests the superiority of one family of human beings over another, all the while reducing this creature to a string of DNA in which serious differences have already been uncovered.

Nothing could be more precarious.

The world, existence, everything, is more than just how we feel at any given moment. No matter how much life can sometimes hurt, who we are and that we’re alive is more than just our circumstances, our history, our “excess baggage,” and how we perceive our lives. The world needs a soul because it needs a purpose. God built that into each and every human being, whether we choose to recognize that fact or not. Once we do, we’re “trapped” with that knowledge and we become aware of the Divine that lives within our secular, ordinary flesh. We are more and different than the sum of our wetware and our programming. The part of us that thanks God every morning for waking up alive means we can suffer what we think will kill us but still arise the next morning a living martyr.

Life means more than getting our way or winning or losing the endless arguments we find in the blogosphere and in social networking venues. It’s important to step away from the monitor and the keyboard and to realise that life doesn’t primarily occur in the Internet. It occurs in the connection between man and God, even if we only cry out to Him that it hurts, oh my does it hurt.

I recently read an article written by a fellow named Dr. Harlan Weisman called My 11 Months of Kaddish. It’s too long to quote the whole thing here, but it’s the story of a man who, in saying Kaddish for his deceased father everyday for 11 months, discovered himself, who he is as a Jew, and ultimately the relationship between his soul and God.

But he couldn’t do it until his father died and he began his bitter grief. However, Dr. Weisman didn’t really start to live again until the eleven months of saying Kaddish were over:

Next day, I went to shul, even though I didn’t have the obligation to say Kaddish anymore. But I needed the warmth and the continuity. And the minyan needed me, the tenth man. I’m repaying all those who took care of me for those 11 months. I’m helping those who continue their period of saying Kaddish, and I watch the new ones joining us, some just as unsure of what they’re doing as I was 11 months ago, as they stumble through their first Kaddish.

I go because it feels good to join the generations of Jews before me who were blessed with the same traditions.

I go because it makes the light inside me shine more brightly.

In the weeks following my last Kaddish, the hole inside of me opened and closed in unpredictable cycles. The sadness continued, coming and going, but gradually became less intense. And the hole gradually filled and stopped opening, just like the rabbi said. The sadness was pushed away by the knowledge that my father was not gone. He is with me today, with me every day. His values, his kindness, compassion, courage, endurance, fortitude, determination and tenacity to do what’s right, his commitment to justice and fairness, but most of all his love, is with me today, tomorrow and always. And I am passing these gifts onto my children, as they will to theirs, through the generations.

Sadness, grief, regret, self-loathing, depression…something’s trying to kill us, but our soul won’t let us die. We’ll just continue to suffer under the weight of a life we never wanted and cannot control. But something has to die for us to live again. Something must be extinguished, and we must let go of it before we realize that it is time for it to end.

Someday, we’ll pray to God, not just because we need Him, but because we want Him, too. Because being with God is the most natural and normal thing for us to do…like waking up in the morning, like breathing.

Our soul will never stop needing God. But we must realize that the rest of us needs and wants Him, too. Then we can stop simply existing in our suffering silence. Then we can begin to wake up alive.

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