Life is Arbitrary. Insight is Not.

Eight years ago I missed celebrating the turn of the new year at midnight.

And not for the regular reason these days as I find myself at midlife not willing or able to stay up late as I had in the past, content to celebrate a “New York New Years” at 9:00 p.m. Pacific Time. Eight years ago is when on New Year’s Day I woke up in the ICU at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, having been carried out of my bedroom by paramedics the day before. The time in between the morning of the 31st and midday on the 1st are lost to me, I have no memory of them.

That was the year I contracted bacterial meningitis, and because of some quick thinking by Yohanna and attentive medical practitioners, as well as some pure luck, I survived this often fatal disease without any major lingering effects.

The turn of the year has thus become a very thoughtful and meditative time for me as I remember this personal anniversary, and two years ago I wrote a reflection that I reread this morning. I found it meaningful and a bit surprising (I had forgotten about it and it was one of those moments that I was, with all humility, impressed with my former self.) And interestingly I find myself in a similar place then as I am now.

It is interesting to revisit this personal anniversary during a time of a global pandemic. Though I was brought down by a bacteria and not a virus, the pandemic is a reminder–as was my illness–that we humans are at the whim of microscopic things. Although we humans like to think that we are at the top of the food chain, the center of creation, we are merely sharing space with many many other creatures and organisms. And like the virus, we, as humans, have also been responsible for causing destruction and loss of life.

And while we have the knowledge and the means to slow the spread of the virus through masking, social distancing, and handwashing, ultimately we need to recognize with humility that the virus will continue to spread until we are able to develop immunity. I say this not because I think we should stop those measures–quite the contrary, we must do all that we can to preserve life and protect ourselves and others (just as we must wear seatbelts, and bike helmets, etc.). I say it as a recognition that at its core, life itself is a risk.

Life is precarious and fragile. It is arbitrary and unfair. As I reflected in that other piece I wrote, “why” is the wrong theological question to ask.

And while we affirm the capricious nature of living, and that life can bring unearned suffering, we can also affirm that life is full of unearned blessing as well. During this time of pandemic I have (re)discovered the joy of baking, and even more, the joy of giving it away for others to enjoy. I’ve spent more time with my family in the past nine months than I have in the past 18 years. I have been able to slow down and achieve more of that fleeting “work-life balance.”

And the pandemic has revealed in a scale unseen in the past the major faults in our society. This too is a blessing, for now it is much easier to point to our fragile safety net, our haphazard health system and where we need to do better. We perhaps knew they were there all along, but may not have confronted them if they weren’t revealed so starkly.

As we wrapped up reading the Book of Genesis last Shabbat, finishing the multi-part story of Joseph and his brothers, we read how, when Joseph and his brothers finally make amends after they first tried to kill him and then sold him into slavery, Joseph said, “Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.” (Genesis 50:20)

While this can be read as a belief in a controlling deity with a plan beyond our comprehension, or even as a justification for the redemptive power of suffering, what I believe Joseph is saying is that while yes, there was pain and suffering, it provided an opportunity for growth and insight. Joseph is able to look back over his experiences and see that because of, not despite, his challenges, he was able to gain learning and perspective. He was able to identify the moments of blessing as well as the moments of hardship.

As I learned from my personal experience eight years ago, and perhaps we as a world community are learning right now, it is on us to look at all that has happened to us, and find ways to improve, things to appreciate, and opportunities for gratitude.

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