As I write my column for publication on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I’m reminded of this joke: Upon hearing his rabbi memorialize soldiers who had died in service, a little boy asked soberly, “Was that a Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service?”
What this little boy — and indeed myself until adulthood — didn’t appreciate about the High Holidays (the 10 days of repentance and renewal between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement) is the wisdom inherent in their practices: We stop to reflect on our lives, seek mutual forgiveness, contemplate priorities for the coming year, reverse course where appropriate — we Think Again.
After undertaking introspection, repentance and renewal (by no means exclusive to Judaism), everyone yearns to be inscribed again in the Book of Life.
Yet as valuable as it is to be awakened annually from our complacency and bad habits, it isn’t enough. Too often we regress into the behavior for which we’ve repented. The hard truth, revealed in the prevalence of destructive addictions and lost (albeit successful) souls like Michael Jackson, is that living a life of purpose, meaning and contentment is not only difficult, it requires daily focus and effort.
As Ron Wolfson points out in his book “The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven,” we don’t know the moment of our death. Therefore, we must seize every opportunity to live a meaningful life lest we discover that, like the victims of Sept. 11, only desperate final moments remain to put things right, to say I love you one last time, or to lament lost opportunities. Wolfson’s advice: Never go to bed angry with a loved one; always ask for forgiveness; and offer forgiveness to those who ask for it, immediately.
So by being there for others, we matter to them. But how do we invest our lives with things that matter so that we matter to ourselves, especially at times of insecurity, fear or hopelessness?
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist, addressed this question in his seminal book “Man’s Search For Meaning.” Having survived concentration camps and the terrifying dread of his own extermination, Frankl discovered that possessing a purpose and a sense of responsibility to others helps one persevere. Also, as Nelson Mandela proved, even a prisoner can decide his mental and spiritual outlook, giving his life meaning and purpose.
Frankl prescribed three avenues to achieve meaning and responsibility in life: (1) creating, working or doing a deed; (2) experiencing virtue — goodness, truth, beauty — or loving someone; and (3) overcoming unavoidable suffering. In the camps, he practiced what he preached. He held tight to the image of his beloved wife; he practiced his profession by helping comrades endure their suffering; and most incredibly, he found decency even in German guards, concluding, “No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”
I can think of no better exemplar of Wolfson’s and Frankl’s philosophies than Randy Pauch, popular 46-year-old professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon who delivered his “Last Lecture” in 2007 upon learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. The video of the lecture — “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” — became a YouTube phenomenon (and book) because it was an uplifting treatise on living, infused with humor, optimism, inspiration and wisdom.
Pauch lectured about the value of overcoming obstacles, and the importance of honesty, humility and gratitude. He spoke about his childhood aspirations and why teaching and enabling the dreams of others was his dream job. Mostly, he used the lecture to “bottle” himself with the expectation that one day, the bottle would wash up on the beach of his children’s lives for them to open and savor.
Though Pausch lost his battle with cancer, we know how fervently he would have lived had he gotten a reprieve. Thankfully, we needn’t wait for a diagnosis to live this way. Ancient Talmudic commentary teaches: “Live each day to the fullest. Then you can look forward with confidence and back without regrets. Dare to be different and to follow your own star. Enjoy what is beautiful. Believe that those you love, love you. Forget what you have done for your friends, and remember what they have done for you. Disregard what the world owes you and concentrate on what you owe the world. When faced with a decision, make it as wisely as possible, then forget it. The moment of absolute certainty never arrives.”
At the end of his lecture, anxious to impart a distillation of his philosophy, Pausch closed with what has become his epitaph: “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you.”
Think Again — your dreams depend on it.