|The measure of a life|
|Friday, 26 November 2010 00:00|
| Living one’s life as a blessing |
My wife, Laura, is now an orphan. As someone blessed with both parents alive and even a nonagenarian grandmother still living well, perhaps I ought to say little about death. And yet, thinking about the death of my mother-in-law leads me to reflect on the meaning and measure of a life. She was someone who was always searching, and maybe now, finally, she has found that which she sought.
As we search, what might we make of our lives? I suppose I think of “making” something of my life from long ago hearing the expression – or the ambition – to make one’s life a work of art.
It is, appropriately, a beautiful metaphor. It highlights inspiration and creativity, and allows us to reinvent ourselves. I think of sculpture and the ability to shape and reshape, or painting with a palette of colors.
And yet, in some sense, I find the notion profoundly frightening. Making one’s life a work of art emphasizes the aesthetic, and although the aesthetic dimension is important, when severed from the ethical it can become monstrous. Leni Riefenstahl was widely considered to be a talented filmmaker, yet she used her talent to produce Nazi propaganda films. Of course, many artists use art to communicate ethical and political messages, but art in itself need not have an ethical bent.
Therefore, it seems to me that the imperative to make one’s life a work of art is an amoral and potentially dangerous one.
Perhaps there are other possibilities. Some time ago I thought of the idea of making one’s life into a prayer. We tend to pray in two ways: Spontaneously as the mood or need carries us or according to more formalized ritual strictures. In Judaism, the central portion of the prayer service is the amidah, the standing prayer. We stand before God, and we offer praise, make requests, and express gratitude. We often forget, but Judaism reminds us that we are always standing before God, not only during the amidah. And in that sense, we can imagine that we are always engaged in prayer, in whichever ways we are living our lives, how we act, how we speak and more. Perhaps the blessings over daily acts, such as eating and drinking, are to help us place otherwise mundane acts in the context of our standing before God. In this way, one can live a life as a single, extended prayer, and we can try to make this prayer worthy of God’s attention.
In the context of religious life, I think it is difficult to separate prayer from the ethical dimension – how can we imagine life as a prayer without righteousness and justice and kindness and compassion? But is this notion really enough? Prayer can be so many things; especially given the dimension of prayer focused on making requests and fulfilling our own needs, is this really a good metaphor for living a life?
Something said at my mother-in-law’s funeral service struck me – although the words are often used interchangeably and the concepts are clearly related, prayers and blessings are not quite the same. Perhaps a better ideal would be to make one’s life into a blessing? A blessing, more than a prayer, suggests a kind of beneficence, something good and rewarding. It’s more than a prayer – it’s, in a way, a successful prayer. And the Hebrew word for blessing is brakhah, the root meaning of which is connected with source or pool. In this sense, brakhot or blessings connect us with the Source of all life – and so making our lives into blessings ought to achieve the same thing on a grander scale.
Some other thoughts:
• We might make our lives into stories, narratives connecting us to our communities and to the past and the future, tales never quite complete.
• We might use the metaphor of a seed and a plant – our lives are full of potential like a seed, and our responsibility is to cultivate our lives and grow to our true potential.
• And finally, we might make a difference with our lives, leaving the world different – and better – than when we entered it.
Or, maybe “making” anything of a life is itself a narrow view characteristic of a culture of production and commoditization? Maybe we should live life instead of making it into something? What do you make of that?