Seems to be a less than perky reminder about the inevitable, I know, but it does offer supportive wisdom actually.
In the Jewish spiritual tradition of Mussar (the Hebrew word for ethics), the soulful human trait of humility plays a fundamental role in a life of balance. To realize that each of us no matter our accomplishments, inevitably become part of the physical earth, is humbling.
Given the truth of this ultimate reality, how can any of us believe we are inferior to others, or superior? Anochi afar v’efer, it’s a perspective grabber, and a cool equalizer.
This raises a significant question about what it means to be human in the time we have. How do we strive to fill in the time between life and, ahem, the alternative? How do we make our lives meaningful even in the mundane? How is one’s “mundane” existence actually not inferior to someone else’s life of adventure, leadership, intellectual contribution?
We think of all kinds of answers here, or maybe we don’t even know where to begin.
The ancient Mussar Rabbis taught that each human is born with a personal spiritual curriculum to fulfill, and that we are each assigned the task of mastery of something in our lives. While culturally today, we tend to think that the something should relate to professional life or contribution to world repair, the teachings here focus on a more intimate area of human life experience, one that holds true no matter the decade in which we come across the teachings.
The mastery of something refers to the inner realm, the part of us expressed through the soul traits we are all born with but that each of us have in varying degrees of development and measure: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, order, equanimity, honor, simplicity, enthusiasm, silence, generosity, truth, moderation, loving-kindness, responsibility, trust, faith, yirah (awe of God).
Mussar practice which involves exploring the individual spiritual curriculum and behaving ourselves into consciousness and mensch-hood (mensch: a yiddish word for person who does the right thing), is a juicy non-denominational entre into spiritual psychology. It’s not what jobs, titles, accomplishments, responsibilities, roles we hold throughout our lives, it’s how.
A fundamental tenet here is that since each of us is born with a personal curriculum that shows up repeatedly in issues that challenge us (take this in for a moment), we are also then equipped with just the right combination of navigation tools to help us deal, learn, and grow. But also, these “tools” are on loan. They are company property, parceled out from Management, aka The Big Kahuna, aka The Grand Pubah; aka, God.
We are supposed to remember not to confuse the self, or “I”, with our accomplishments when after all the truth is that we have accomplished x, y, and z with borrowed tools.
Here are a few good questions then: If we are each endowed a very specific curriculum and also a navigation system, we do so many of us strive for similar accomplishments? Why do parents steer children to focus on their ideas of success? How can we possibly measure ourselves against others?
The tendency toward external striving is how we miss the mark because we either don’t realize that we are essentially spiritual beings having a human experience, or we forget. No matter where we live, whom we were born to, no matter what has transpired since birth, the human purpose in a lifetime is to realize the potential of one’s soul and to understand one’s inborn talents in relationship to it. From here and here only, all-systems-are-go toward the external world. Go, be free!
It’s true that a prophet like Moses was endowed with quite the helping of leadership potential, and so his life curriculum, played out in the form of challenges as a leader, was appropriate for him. In terms of humility, he appropriately took up a lot of space, as leaders should.
But not all of us are meant for that kind of work—the “navigation tools” leased to each of us give us clues about the amount of space to full in the world—the type of accomplishments to strive toward. We might be equal in terms of humanity, but we are apples and oranges in terms of “accomplishment”. How can it be any other way when no two of us graduate from exactly the same curriculum?
There’s a story about a more recent leader and sage, the Chafetz Chaim, who was asked how he had managed to have such a profound impact on the twentieth-century Jewish world. He’s said to have answered:
I set out to change the world, but I failed. So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there too. So I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin, but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.
Anochi afar v’efer is meant to remind us each day to truly live our own lives, while we have ‘em.
And finally, we might all have different curriculums to navigate over approximately 80-100 years, but at least we’re all in earth school together, and there’s always recess to look forward to.