Through and Through
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” This well-known statement has been famously attributed to Socrates, who spent his time practicing what he preached and was eventually put to death for it.
When I think about those words, an image springs to mind of a white-coated scientist bent over his microscope, carefully examining a host of squirmy little things: the building blocks of life. But not all of us are scientists, and life is not all wriggly, subatomic particles. Fortunately, there are other ways to examine the life we’ve been given. Ways which suit the people we are and which, ultimately, can make our lives very much worth living.
It’s frightening how easy it is to coast along the surface of life without ever taking the trouble to probe a little deeper. It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it fosters the illusion that all will be well if we can just keep things chilled. You could call it “living lite.” A great many people subscribe to this kind of existence, blithely ignoring nine-tenths of what life is all about… until a heavenly Finger taps them on their shoulder to get their attention.
We’d prefer to gallop merrily down the road of the years, enjoying the scenery and breathing in the crisp, pine-scented air. But sometimes things happen to halt our merry journey. When any kind of trouble or suffering lands in our path and blocks the way forward, that is a signal. A hint that it’s time to pause, take a good, hard look at the road we’re on, and to ask some important questions. “Why am I here? Where am I going? Where have I taken a wrong step? And what can I do now, to enhance my journey and that of the people around me?”
A man who had been through a painful divorce after an even more painful marriage once told a friend, “If you don’t do something with all that pain, then what was the point of suffering in the first place?” An astute question. Too often, we view pain as if it were a nasty pimple that we wish would just go away. We naturally try to avoid the discomfort that suffering brings. So we distract ourselves. We seek “closure,” which often means nothing more than putting the pain behind us and slamming the door. But maybe behind us is not where suffering ought to go.
The fellow in our story was smarter than that. He decided to use his pain. He used it to get to know himself better, including those areas of personal weakness that had contributed to the dissolution of his marriage. And then he used it to work on shoring up those areas, so that his next relationship might prove more successful than the first one had been. For him, “all that pain” was a not just something to be endured, but a jewel to be mined. An investment in a happier, more self-aware future.
Suffering eventually passes. It is like a wind blowing through a garden, scattering seeds as it goes. Something real and valuable can grow from those seeds, but only if the soil is thoroughly watered and mulched to nurture those precious seeds. Otherwise, they will lie on the unreceptive ground to blow away in the next puff of wind, leaving the garden as barren as before.
Our lives are like that garden. When things happen to us, we can let them sink in, examining them and learning from them, nurturing them like seeds to coax them into luxuriant life. Or we can let events breeze right through us, landing nowhere and leaving not the slightest impression on the hard, dry soil of our hearts and minds. It’s easier to let experience skim over us without touching us at all. Much easier than the hard work of mining their hidden gems. But what you’re left with afterwards is a whole lot of emptiness. A garden in which nothing can grow.
Sometimes the effort of ignoring that which should not be ignored translates itself into physical or psychological symptoms: another warning signal. You can only run away for so long. Sooner or later, it is incumbent upon a human being to start thinking about the hard stuff. So that he can understand. So that he begin the process of making it better.
The same can come into play with Torah as well. As Rav Soloveitchik is reputed to have told a talmid who said he’d gone through all of Shas: “Yes, but did Shas go through you?”
We can all be guilty in this regard. “Listen to this interesting vort I heard the other day!” We faithfully parrot back a thought, a gematriya, a logical “knaitch.” But have we made the idea our own? Has that pearl of wisdom blown in one ear and out the other with only the briefest of pauses inside our heads… just long enough to let us repeat it afterwards? Or do we allow the idea to steep, to simmer, to effect some sort of internal change and eventually become part of our very essence?
There was a famous songwriter whose haunting compositions were beautiful but mostly melancholy. “Why does he always write such sad songs?” someone once asked the songwriter’s friend. The friend smiled and said, “Because when he’s happy, he has better things to do.”
When we’re happy, our tendency is to flit through our days, carefree and thought-free. It’s only when that Divine Finger tickles the back of our necks with some unexpected trouble that we stop flitting and start paying attention. It is precisely those times that offer us the best opportunity to tend our gardens. Because even the most drenching rain will be unable to nourish soil that has been left to grow arid and unreceptive.
While meeting a weekly deadline exerts a sometimes uncomfortable pressure, one of the benefits I’ve found from writing this column is that it forces me to examine things. Any incident, any memory, any scrap of dialogue, startling encounter or roadside sign can provide fodder for a new thought to offer my readers. But merely finding that thought is not enough. Unexamined, an idea is nothing more than a hard kernel of possibility. It must be planted and watered and nurtured until something grows from it that is worthy of being shared.
The individuals with the richest personalities, the most insightful minds and the most empathetic hearts are those who have not allowed life to breeze through them without making a landing. Rather, they pause at every turn to examine and to analyze. To wonder and to feel. Only when they’ve squeezed an experience or an idea dry by letting its essence pour into the soil of their personal inner gardens do they move on from it, transformed.
We can be like those people. We can do it by making sure that the things we encounter in life do not pass through us, leaving us untouched. By allowing the experiences we have and the ideas we hear to settle for a while. Too often, we experience the events of our lives as if they were parking meters: drop in a coin and you can hang around for fifteen minutes or so. Why not grant them a longer lease? Enough time to mull them over, fiddle with their parts and get to know their ramifications… until they become so deeply a part of us that they permanently color our personal world view.
We can let life blow right past us like a summer breeze. Or we can let it, like a life-giving rain, sink and settle and saturate the soil of our consciousness, through and through. So that amazing things can grow, for us and for the whole world around us.