A few months ago I stumbled upon a 2013 piece written by Rabbi (Lord) Jonathan Sacks. It was called, “Five Rules for Life.” After skimming it, I told myself that I would, at some later time, write my own 5 rules. Here they are.
By way of introduction I want to say that I have, without a doubt, eliminated Rabbi Sacks’ 5 rules from my conscious brain. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what words of wisdom he shared. That’s important, because, this post is meant to accomplish two things. First, it’s a thought exercise for me to articulate 5 rules that are authentically my own (authentically if not uniquely or exclusively). Second, it’s an experiment to see whether my 5 and Rabbi Sacks’ 5 (and potentially every other person’s 5) have something fundamental in common.
So here goes.
Rule 1: Be Open. In every moment each of us chooses, consciously or not, to take a posture toward life. That posture is somewhere between radically open and radically closed. I prefer open. Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s first poet laureate, captured this idea most beautifully in his final anthology of poetry, “Open, Closed, Open.” As an existential posture, “open” has deep resonances within and beyond Jewish tradition. Each day Jews pray to a God that they hope will, “open the eyes of the blind” both literally and, more interestingly, figuratively. When the Sages of old would share their most personal wisdom they would, “Patach u’derash” (“Open and expound”). Whether it’s apocryphal or not, I was once taught a maxim that was attributed to the Hasidic movement: “Where is God? Wherever we let God in.” Being open is a prerequisite for living a life that has any meaning and value. Open, vulnerable, authentic, receptive, engaged, willing. Rule 1 of 5.
Rule 2: Be Curious. How would life be different if even the most mundane moment or routine activity was a source of endless curiosity and wonder? On the one hand, we might warrant a diagnosis of some sort. On the other, we would never ceased to be what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel might’ve called, “Radically Amazed” by even the simplest things in life. If you really stop and consider it, curiosity is in short supply in the world today. Meanwhile, snap judgment, baseless assumptions, knee jerk reactions, ignorance, and obsessive scrutiny are all alive and well. These are enemies of curiosity. Instead of flooding our minds with assumptions about whatever it is that we’re experiencing, curiosity slows us down, forces us to humbly acknowledge that we don’t know everything about everything, and proceed a bit more cautiously in pretty much every situation. Good therapists, good clergy, good bosses, good colleagues, good friends, and good family members all have the ability to “lean in” to curiosity in pretty much any situation. Being open leads naturally into being curious. Rule 2 of 5.
Rule 3: Care. In every moment, in every situation, at every one of life’s intersections, great and small, we are faced with a choice: to care, or not to care. I might go so far as the paraphrase Hamlet and say, “That is the question.” For me the choice is clear, we should care. We should care about people. We should care about all creation. We should care about the impact of our actions. We should care about the explicit and implicit messages that we’re sending to one another. We should care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, our friend, our parent, our child, our spouse, our students, our colleagues, our clergy, our self. My thinking here is deeply influenced by Nel Noddings. We need to care. Others need to know that we care. To care is to be human and to be human is to care. A world in which we care for others and others care for us is a world that I’d be happy to live in. The staggering deficit of care and caring is obvious and manifest the minute we start to read the world around us in terms of care. Though somewhat paternalistic, I also think of Edmund Fleg’s poem, “I am a Jew” in this context. Fleg wrote, “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” If only every human being (and every Jew) could say this and mean it. Rule 3 of 5.
Rule 4: Create. Create meaning. Create art. Create joy. Create love. Create purpose. CREATE. For me, this is the ultimate “Thou Shalt.” If we weren’t meant to create then why does there reside, within the soul of the human being, the desire to… well… create. We shape, we form, we mold, we build, we knock down, and we build again. We write, we paint, we sing. We are all artists. And our most enduring and unique artistic creation is none other than our life. Even if we wish it wasn’t the case, on some deep level we know this to be true. The creative imperative of human existence is a powerful one. When untethered from any accompanying moral imperative we can see how the need to create perversely ends up looking more like a need to destroy. Destruction is the weak and amoral person’s attempt to fulfill our human need to create. To be human means to know beauty. To be human means to have been created. To be fully human means to carry on the work of creation and wed that work with our intuitive and innate understanding of beauty. More than likely, our creation will be deeply connected to our legacy, our legacy to any sort of immortality that our soul might possibly achieve. May the grandeur of our creative potential only inspire us to create and create again, rather than worry about whether our creation merits the praise or accolades of others. Rule 4 of 5.
Rule 5: Connect. Life isn’t meant to be lived in a vacuum. None of us wants to be the person that slips silently from this life only to be discovered several days, weeks, or months later sprawled out on some kitchen or bathroom floor. Judging by your reaction to that very image you agree. We want, we need, we must connect. The Buddhists know that life is gentler, kinder, more revelatory when we connect to something as simple as our breath. The faithful know that life is transformed from the mundane and fleeting to the sacred and enduring when we connect with Deity. The trascendentalists know that to connect with nature and with the inherent benevolence of the heart and the earth is the only way to ever feel fully at home in a seemingly harsh universe. The existentialists know that our absurd stumbling through life (which sometimes feels like pushing a boulder uphill for all eternity), only takes on meaning when we confronted with our mortality and self-determined sense of purpose and power. The psychoanalysts among us know that to connect with our own self, our own story, our own “I” is the only way to self-actualize and get off the couch. And the ethicists among us know that to be human is to connect with one another in loving, kind, and happiness-inducing ways. A life without connection is a sad, small, isolated thing. It is a rock, it is an island. It feels no pain. And it never cries. What good is that? Rule 5 of 5.
So there you have it. My 5 rules for life as of 4/20/16. What are your 5 rules? And by the way, I categorically reject the idea that there are “rules” for something as sloppy as life.