Yom Kippur, 5778
September 29-30, 2017—9-10 Tishri, 5778
This past year I have been saying Kaddish for both my mother and mother in love, which means that every morning starts out exactly the same way. Every morning I would be on the treadmill by 6:00 am, run for half an hour, get news, weather, and sports, and then shower and drive to shul in time for the first Kaddish at 7:00.
That is how Monday morning, July 17, started as well. A thoroughly ordinary morning. Or so I thought. But it did not turn out that way.
After running for about 15 minutes, I started to smell the smell of rubber burning. I had never smelled that before, but that cannot be a good thing, I thought. So I turned off the treadmill and unplugged it. Next thing I know the treadmill is on fire. A live, uncontained fire emerged from the base of the treadmill. Prodigious amounts of smoke were billowing out. It was so smoky that I could not see beyond the smoke. It was dark as night in our basement. I yelled up to Shira and Jordy to call 911 and to get out of the house. I tried to put the fire out by dousing it with water from a sink that I would put into a big pot and then throw onto the fire, but the fire still burned, and the smoke still churned. This was a fire I could not put out. I ran outside and waited for the firefighters to come, hoping that they could save our home.
Thank God four firetrucks came to the rescue. Newton’s heroic firefighters descended, in big numbers, with all of their equipment and gear, and they extinguished the fire. Thank you, Newton’s firefighters, for saving our home.
When they were done, and I went down to our basement to inspect the damage, the
basement had been completely destroyed by all the toxic smoke. Our insurance company sent a fire investigator to inspect the treadmill and the basement it had ravaged. I will never forget what he said. There we are, the carpets destroyed, the walls stained, the windows broken by the firefighters to permit maximal airflow, the smoke still thick, the basement ruined, this fire investigator takes one look at the charred treadmill and says to me, “You are so lucky. You have no idea how lucky you are.”
I’m sorry, I said, lucky? I don’t get that.
What part don’t you get?
The lucky part. How are we lucky?
He says: I recently had a case of another treadmill that caught fire. This was a house in Lowell. But in that case, the fire spread to the belt, and it turned the fire into a conflagration which destroyed the whole house. A total loss. In your case, the fire went up, not backwards, it did not find any combustible material like the plastic belt that would have made it rage out of control, so you are mostly dealing with smoke damage. I’m telling you, you are lucky.
I have been marinating on his observation ever since. By the way, we still don’t have a livable basement. Moments to burn, months to repair.
Was I lucky because the fire could have been much so much worse? Somebody could have died, God forbid. The house could have burned down.
Or was I unlucky because it could have been so much better. How about no fire? I’d like to vote for that, no fire.
The facts of our life are what they are. What happened happened. But how we see those facts, the attitude we bring to those facts, the lens with which we see our reality, make all the difference in the world.
When you wake up in the morning and genuinely believe, I am so lucky, yes bad stuff happened, yes I have some challenges, but I am lucky because it could have been so much worse, and there is still so much good in my life, that is one kind of day, a hopeful day. When you wake up in the morning and say life is unfair, I am unlucky, things are unjust, bad stuff always happens to me, why me, that is another kind of day, a less hopeful day.
A blogger named Seth Godin wrote a memorable piece encouraging all of us to make two lists. On one list write down everything that is good. Healthy relationships. Successes at work and home. Good health. Loved ones who are thriving. Material comfort. On the second list write down everything that we wish were otherwise Relationships that are embittered. Frustrations at home and at work. Health struggles. Loved ones who are not thriving. Not enough money.
Everybody has two lists. Nobody gets just the happy list. Here is how Seth Godin ends his blog. Tape one list to your refrigerator where you see it every single day. That is the list that you live. Put the second list in a drawer and take it out once a year. That is the list that you are working on. The choice is yours.
For most of us, most of the time, the evidence points both ways, we are so lucky because things could be worse and we have blessings, and we are so unlucky because things could be better and we have real challenges. How then do we see the life we are living? Which list do we want to tape the refrigerator? I want to suggest five simple moves that will help us live our best life now.
First, do not become Nervous Nellies. Nervous Nellies are always worrying about the other shoe dropping. Life is full of close calls and near misses. When I started googling treadmills catching on fire, I learned that treadmills catching on fire is a thing. It happens. And many of the stories reported on line are truly tragic. The treadmill catches fire in the middle of the night and people die. The treadmill catches fire while the runner is running and he or she suffers third degree burns.
One possible response is: Don’t get another treadmill. Don’t use anything that might catch on fire. Don’t take risks. Play it safe. But not taking any risks, playing it safe, has a cost.
The classic Jewish text on what happens to you when you become a Nervous Nellie is Sarah after the binding of Isaac. When we last saw Isaac at the end of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, he had survived being bound on the altar for slaughter. In the very next verse, his mother Sarah dies. Why? Why does she die just then? What is the connection?
Rashi explains that when Sarah hears what almost happened, that her son had been bound for slaughter, and he almost died, that close call was too much for her, and she died. She died of excess worry.
Sheryl Sandberg quoted her rabbi’s prayer: “Lord, let me not die while I am still alive.” We don’t want to become a nervous Nellie, dying while we are still alive.
Here is a second thing we don’t want to do. We don’t want to play the if only game. If only I had made a different decision; if only my parents had said yes instead of no; if only I had gone to that college, taken this job, moved to that city, married this partner, had the courage to take that risk instead of play it safe, my life would be so different and I would be so much happier. When we play the if only game, it never ends well.
This problem of if-only-itis has only gotten worse in the age of Facebook. Now all of our self-doubts about the road not taken are exacerbated when we look at images of other peoples’ seemingly perfect lives. That is a third thing we don’t want to do: compare our real life to the curated on line lives of others.
Do you ever notice that nobody posts a picture of their life on Facebook struggling to make it through a tough day? You don’t see people in sweats, taking out the garbage or cleaning out the attic. You don’t see people steadying their nerves to go to a job they dislike on Monday morning, wondering how are they ever going to make it through the week. You don’t see people in dialogue with their children who are lost and wandering, or with their elderly parents who had to turn in their car keys and deal with less independence and more vulnerability. You don’t see posts of people depressed and in crisis.
To the contrary, you see posts of people who have life figure out, dressed to the nines, healthy, happy, smiling, laughing, celebrating, savoring, toasting a glass of champagne, on vacation in some rarefied spot—Croatia. Croatia is hot. The only place on the planet hotter than Croatia is Iceland. Iceland is really hot. Suddenly everybody is going to Iceland. It’s only a 7 hour flight. You just have got to see Reykjavik. You have not lived until you have hiked and biked in Croatia or Iceland.
Reading these posts, we wonder, how come they don’t have a care in the world, and my heart is weighed down with so many cares?
A couple of studies have come out this year showing that the more people use Facebook, the less happy they are; the more they like other people’s posts, the worse they feel about their own lives. When we compare our imperfect life to the glorified and sanitized and curated lives of others, our lives do not measure up and we feel bad about ourselves.
What is a strategy for feeling good about the life we have? That leaves us with our fourth move, which is to know the difference between productive and unproductive angst. Not all angst is created equal. Angst is productive if it can lead us to take specific action that will make our lives better. Unproductive angst just makes us feel bad but does not help us fix it.
After our fire broke out, we realized that there was one thing that would have been very helpful to have had, that we did not have—a fire extinguisher. Our bad. So that angst led us to do something: namely, we went to Staples and bought fire extinguishers for every floor. Not advertising, just saying. I am not plugging any particular store, just reporting the facts.
I still have to learn how to use the fire extinguisher. But at least now we have fire extinguishers. Having fire extinguishers is an important first step.
Think about the things on your sad list. Do you have a move to make, a card to play, a thing to do? Can you get your own version of a fire extinguisher? If so, that is productive angst. Channel it to a better life. But if there is nothing you can do besides feel bad, why do it? Let it go.
So where are we? We are not going to become Nervous Nellies, worrying about all the bad stuff that could happen next time.
We are not going to play the if-only game.
We are not going to compare our real life to the curated on line lives of others.
We are going to channel productive angst to healthy change, and let go of unproductive angst.
When we have done all that, what we will have is our life that has all the plusses on the happy list, and all the challenges on the sad list. Our life could be better. Our life could be worse. We still have to figure out which list we tape on the refrigerator and see and live every day.
Our Israeli friend Micah Goodman shared a teaching this past summer that might be helpful here. In talking about the complexities of Israel, Micah taught us that there are two fundamental lenses in life: Plato’s lens, and Aristotle’s lens.
You have heard of the idea of a Platonic archetype, that is a perfect embodiment of an idea. If we compare our life to the perfect Platonic archetype, to a heavenly ideal, we feel bad about ourselves.
So Aristotle taught us, don’t compare your reality to a perfect Platonic archetype. Compare your reality to the imperfect, real world. When you do that, you feel much better.
Using the lens of the real world, not the perfect world, is our final move.
In a perfect world, my fire never would have happened.
But in the real world, it happened. That is true in different ways for all of us.
In a perfect world, illness would not happen. But in the real world, illness happens.
In a perfect world, aging and its infirmities would not happen. But in the real world, they do.
In a perfect world, our loved ones would not have died. But in the real world, nobody gets to live forever.
In a perfect world, everybody we love would be thriving. But in the real world, people we love have their struggles, and they work their way through it. Our job is to be with them while they do.
In a perfect world, there would only be one list, the happy list. But in the real world, everybody has two lists, the happy list and the sad list.
Here we are, on Yom Kippur, standing in our kitchen, facing our refrigerator, with our two lists. One list goes on the refrigerator. We see it and live it every day. One list goes in a drawer, to be taken out once a year. It’s there, we don’t deny it, we just choose not to dwell on it every day.
The two lists, and the tape, are now in your hands. The choice is yours. GT.