I wrote this to read during our chavurah‘s Kol Nidre service on Erev Yom Kippur. This was hard for me to write, mostly because I get very self-conscious talking about spirituality; I always feel like I’m churning out a really schmaltzy greeting card that will be adorned with pastel flowers, and maybe a singing bird.
I’m really more of an Monotheistic Animist at heart, and the word “God” conjures up an image of something very different for me than a tall white bearded man striding through some crystal cloud palace in the sky (although that is how I picture Zeus). But you can picture whatever, or whomever, you like, and make what you will of this offering.
“Choose life!”, the Torah tells us, “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse – Therefore choose life that you and your offspring may live.”
What could possibly be more obvious? It’s one of those choices that can feel so automatic, we lose sight of the presence of a choice. Our hearts pump, our lungs contract and expand, our bodies are run by involuntary reflexes. It takes us a few newborn minutes to sort out the basics, but then we’re off and living. What sort of a choice is this, then, this choosing life?
We are spirits in mortal bodies, death is coming for each of us, whether we choose it or not. And right now we are each alive, whether or not we consciously chose life this morning. And yet, we do have a choice, each of us. Life and death, they are both options at any time, every moment of every day.
You can find many essays about this pointing out that what God really meant, of course, was to choose a spiritual life, a good life, a life on the right path. But what if it also means exactly what it says? What does it mean to choose life, to choose life, to choose your own one life?
For me, life was not an automatic choice. I spent years trying very hard to choose death. I ran after it, I prayed for it, I desired its sweet and eternal embrace. I did not care if I was the one by fire, the one by water, the one by brave ascent, the one by accident; I just wanted to be the one, inscribed in the book of death.
I’m not sure it matters why, and I think it wasn’t just one thing. I think I chose a vision of the world when I was young and that vision informed my future choices about what to see and what to ignore. When I was three and my sister 6 months old, our birth mother walked out, telling us she was going to live with some other children who really needed a mother. My sister grew up sunny and literally bursting with song and dance, so perhaps I was born with my own dour personality, the opposite of hers. But from that day on, I was convinced that the world was rotten at the core, that human connections were doomed, that life was going to be nothing but suffering, that life was not worth choosing.
By the time I was a teenager, I was depressed with a goal: Death. I didn’t want a dramatic or messy suicide attempt, I wanted to be dead, already. Other kids planned for future careers, dreamed of love and marriage and children, knew they were headed for wonderful things. My secret plan was to be dead. I knew where I was headed: Not to some heaven, cavorting in the light, but plainly stone cold unconscious, forever. Nothing else seemed as alluring as this permanent and never-ending stillness and lack of presence.
That meeting with the college guidance counselor, that algebra grade, that cute boy, none of it was really important. I had no need to think of the future, to plan ahead. I knew where I’d be, and my destination required no special skills, no study or preparation of any kind. The love of my parents, the love of my sisters, the love of my whole family, my friends and my teachers; all the love that surrounded me rolled right off my death-oiled feathers. I felt only pain (or at least, that’s the only feeling I noticed), I saw only the bad things, the bad people, the suffering of the world, a world seemingly governed by cruelty both targeted and random. In this gloom, Death was a kind god, and I prayed for his favor.
Until one day, one day that started out like all the others. I was fresh out of a month in the hospital for depression, a choice my parents helped me make when I couldn’t sleep any more, but when being awake was so painful, I was stepping out into city traffic, hoping that a driver wouldn’t be able to stop in time. I earned myself a release back into normal life by signing a contract promising that I would stop this dangerous behavior. I lied, but I figured that didn’t matter: It’s hard to hold a dead girl to a contractual agreement.
I was free again to look for a carefully careless stumble that would stop my heart, but I also had family counseling sessions to attend. On this day, I decided I’d had enough of therapy. I stood up, announced that I was leaving, and I headed for the elevator, off to see how I might cast my life away.
What happened next was most unexpected. I punched “lobby” in the elevator, and I was suddenly standing on holy ground, my soul flooded with a heavy and very unfamiliar knowledge that I was beloved by the universe.
That even I deserved to live. That maybe I was nothing special, but that no one was; we’re all the same that way: Imperfect, intentionally so.
That I was truly, really and truly, as deserving of life as every single other person on the planet.
That it didn’t matter how stained or tattered my soul felt, it was still a soul just like every other, a fragment of the light and breath of something eternal and unifying.
That maybe all of life was just suffering, but it was life, all at once mundane and seemingly individually insignificant, and precious all the same.
That sure, maybe my life sucked, but it was mine, my very own, perhaps not destined for worldly greatness, but to be treasured for itself because it was a life, a conscious life.
That it was not a cosmic mistake, this life of mine, that it was of value, beyond value, and meant for me, yes me, really for me, completely messed up and horrible me.
That I could, I should, live it, the way I wanted to, no reason to strive to another person’s goals or measure. That there was love and beauty and joy and delicious irony and light to witness and enjoy.
This was nothing, nothing at all, that my rational atheist self had ever wanted to hear. But some hidden starving part of me drew it in and came to life. And suddenly, I wanted to live. I chose to live. I was not also immediately visited with a trouble-free psyche and a cheerful disposition; I was still very much the sad girl I had been seconds before. But, for the first time, I wanted to go on.
Every day I’ve lived since that moment of clarity has been a choice made consciously. I haven’t done very well in choosing a life in pursuit of some of what this culture tells us is important: A solid high-paying career, for instance, and expensive things. But I have chosen life, over and over again. It’s not that I ever contemplate any other choice, it’s that I’m aware of choosing my life: The life I want, a life of experiences and connections and joy.
Here I am, more than 20 years later, still stunned and blinking in the pure light of the love that flooded me that day. I’ve had hard days, weeks, months, years since then, but never once have I wanted again to choose death.
And when my first daughter was born, and I held her body in my arms, I knew what it meant, that we choose life so that we and our offspring can live by holding fast to God. The room was glowing in light that didn’t come from the candles alone, I was holding a newly human living spark of God, a new soul come to the world to continue on this messy, painful, wonderful life. I knew for a golden second that as much as we hold fast to God, God holds fast to us, each of us, all of us.
I still see the the bad things, the cruelty, I feel the others hurt and alone, I feel their pain in my own body and heart, and I choose that pain, that awareness, that connection, this life. I choose life so that I may live, and my offspring, and theirs, a long river of souls stretching through time connected through our hearts and hands, holding fast to each other, and held fast by the eternal compassion and love of our Source.