Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life. And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman from his book
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth
quoted from sichosinenglish.org
A rabbi was once called to a hospital to see a Jewish teenager who was suicidal. Feeling that he was a good-for-nothing who could not get anything right, the boy had attempted to take his own life. But even his suicide attempt failed. Seeing that he was Jewish, the hospital staff called the rabbi to come and try to lift the boy’s dejected spirits.
The rabbi arrived at the hospital not knowing what to expect. He found the boy lying in bed watching TV, a picture of utter misery, black clouds of despair hanging over his head. The boy hardly looked up at the rabbi, and before he could even say hello, the boy said, “If you are here to tell me what the priest just told me, you can leave now.”
Slightly taken aback, the rabbi asked, “What did the priest say?”
“He told me that G‑d loves me. That is a load of garbage. Why would G‑d love me?”
It was a good point. This kid could see nothing about himself that was worthy of love. He had achieved nothing in his life; he had no redeeming features, nothing that was beautiful or respectable or lovable. So why would G‑d love him?
The rabbi needed to touch this boy without patronizing him. He had to say something real. But what do you say to someone who sees himself as worthless?
“You may be right,” said the rabbi. “Maybe G‑d doesn’t love you.”
This got the boy’s attention. He wasn’t expecting that from a rabbi.
“Maybe G‑d doesn’t love you. But one thing’s for sure. He needs you.”
This surprised the boy. He hadn’t heard that before.
-Rabbi Aron Moss
“The Rabbi and the Suicidal Teenager”
I’ve heard this before and on the surface, it sound pretty good. It sounds like you would never have been born and wouldn’t have continued to live if you didn’t have some important part to play in God’s plan. It also sounds like if you took yourself out of God’s plan (by suicide for instance) there would be a big hole punched into the middle of that plan.
Seems like a really fragile and vulnerable plan. Since human beings have free will, we can commit a thousand different actions that would be contrary to God’s master plan for Creation. If one human being were to kill himself before fulfilling his or her part in the plan, what would God do? Is there a “plan B?”
I want to finish with the Rabbi Moss commentary before continuing:
The very fact that you were born means that G‑d needs you. He had plenty of people before you, but He added you to the world’s population because there is something you can do that no one else can. And if you haven’t done it yet, that makes it even more crucial that you continue to live, so that you are able to fulfill your mission and give your unique gift to the world.
If I can look at all my achievements and be proud, I can believe G‑d loves me. But what if I haven’t achieved anything? What if I don’t have any accomplishments under my belt to be proud of?
Well, stop looking at yourself and look around you. Stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking of others. You are here because G‑d needs you — He needs you to do something.
My friend, you and I know that happiness does not come from earning a big salary. Happiness comes from serving others, from living life with meaning. I am convinced that all you need to do is focus outward, not inward. Don’t think about what you need, but what you are needed for. And in finding what you can do for others, you will find yourself.
Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Does fulfilling your part in God’s plan for your life automatically mean you’re going to be happy about it? Look at the Apostle Paul’s life. After being commissioned by Jesus to be the emissary to the Gentiles and to spread the Good News of Christ to the nations (Acts 9), was his life happy? It may have been fulfilling and rewarding in the sense that Paul knew he was doing what God was asking, but it was hardly happy or even comfortable. Paul was beaten, left for dead, had to run for his life, was shipwrecked, and bitten by a poisonous snake. He was finally executed in Rome after a lengthy stay as a prisoner. That doesn’t sound like “happy” to me.
But Rabbi Moss isn’t talking about happiness, he’s talking about serving others as part of God’s plan and in doing so, finding yourself. If you had a chance to fulfill a great purpose in life and to serve God in bringing many otherwise lost people to Him, wouldn’t you do it, even if it meant personal hardship?
Actually, that’s a tough question, especially for many Christians in western nations who aren’t typically called upon to make such great sacrifices and to suffer such hardships. In theory, our answer should be “yes,” but in practicality, I’m not so sure we’d all jump up and down enthusiastically and yell out, “Pick me!”
Now let’s dig a little deeper. Paul’s purpose in life was unmistakable. Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him what he wanted. A few days later, he sent a human messenger to him to tell Paul his next steps. We see in other parts of the Bible how Paul seemingly had other supernatural experiences which no doubt re-enforced his life’s purpose.
But all that stuff doesn’t happen to most of us. Even if it did and we saw visions and heard voices telling us to do such and thus, most Christians around us would think we were nuts and recommend us to the nearest psychiatrist.
But as far as I can tell, most of us don’t have supernatural experiences to tell us what our life’s purpose happens to be. Most of us have to figure it out, seemingly on our own.
Rabbi Moss suggests to his (possibly fictional) suicidal teenager that as a young person, he has most likely not yet had the opportunity to fulfill his life’s purpose. God needs him to do that, so he has to stay alive until that purpose if completed. But what is that purpose? How do you know what it is? How do you know when you’ve done it? Do you just wait around and hope you can figure out what it is and then perform it when opportunity strikes?
Tough questions. Here’s another one. If you do figure out what your purpose in life is and you have already completed it, what’s the purpose in continuing to go on?
OK, that’s somewhat unfair, because the question assumes that your purpose in life is to commit one act that is easily defined and can be performed in a relatively quick manner, like changing a tire, or helping an older person across the street. But what if that’s it? You’ve done what God created you to do. You may have years or even decades of life still left in you. What now?
Of course, your purpose might be long-lasting and multi-dimensional. You could have been created to be a parent and a grandparent and to influence and support your family across your entire lifetime. In that case, you can never fulfill your purpose until God dictates that it is time for you to die.
Reflecting back on everything I’ve just written, it would seem that, if we accept the premise Rabbi Moss provides, we know we haven’t fulfilled our purpose in life because we’re alive. We assume that when we die, we’ve completed what we were created to do.
But what about “suicide” and “plan B?” If free will allows a certain number of people to kill themselves, what happens to God’s plan? Is it irreparably thwarted? That hardly seems likely since God is God. Being human, we tend to think of the progression of time, fate, and the universe relative to God’s plan as rather linear. Step 1 leads to step 2 and then to step 3 and so on. But if we accept that, we’re saying that no sort of randomness is possible in a created universe. But if we have free will, that can’t be true.
If God’s plan includes the possibility of randomness and further, the possibility that not all people born will fulfill their plan (so far, I’ve only included the single reason of suicide, but people may fail to fulfill their plan for a variety of other reasons tied in to their free will and the free will of people in their environment), then God must have a “plan B” (and I’m sure it’s much more complicated than this) to compensate. If one person who is to fulfill some aspect of God’s plan dies, then there must be a method (that is totally outside of human awareness) of shifting people and events around to accomplish God’s goals in this instance.
That means in an absolute sense, as individuals, we are not indispensible to God. We can be replaced. God doesn’t have an ultimate need for our individual lives.
Rabbi Moss’ story may seem compelling and we can even see how it might have turned around this depressed and suicidal boy, but it’s also not too hard to work our way around his argument, either. When Rabbi Freeman says, “Despair is a cheap excuse for avoiding one’s purpose in life. And a sense of purpose is the best way to avoid despair,” it sounds like he is being too dismissive of someone else’s despair. If Rabbi Moss (or whoever was the Rabbi in the story of the suicidal teenager) had walked into the room, dropped Rabbi Freeman’s two sentence “bomb,” and walked out, do you think it would have done any good?
People have better days and worse days. Having a purpose in life is usually pretty important, but most of the time, it gets lost in the day-to-day shuffle of going to work, interacting with our families, paying the bills, and whatever other tasks we’re expected to perform just because of the roles we play in the various areas of our lives. Most of the time, we don’t give our overarching purpose much thought. It only comes up when you read blog posts such as this one or encounter a personal life crisis.
The raw fact is that many of us may never become aware of some higher and nobel purpose of our life, let alone one that is assigned to us by Heaven. Most of us, if we have an awareness of God at all, will live our day-to-day existence, try to love, strive not to hate, read our holy book, pray, and by the time we die, we can only hope that we did whatever we were supposed to do.
That’s not a particularly satisfying thought and Rabbi Moss tells a better tale than I do, but who’s to say if life works out this way or that?