Huey the Wonder Horse was in the last show of the season on Saturday, and I missed it because I was warming a seat in the synagogue. It being Yom Kippur, holiest day of the year, and all. I would be lying if I said I was not distracted by the desire to go watch my Wonder Boy doing his Wonder Thing with a better rider than I am…but my attention got recalled sharply to the present in the afternoon services – the Yom Kippur liturgy puts any Baptist meeting to shame when it comes to pure length – it is an endurance event. There’s a vast amount of poetry and philosophy that belongs to the day and some of the best stuff comes fairly late in the game. It’s a reward for sticking it out, I suppose.
I find it interesting that every year it seems to be something different that speaks to me, too. Sometimes it’s the shofar – the blast of a ram’s horn (or a kudu horn, this year) in an enclosed building is guaranteed to draw the attention of every living thing with an intact auditory system. Sometimes it is the song imploring God to be kind, because no good deeds or nice thoughts on my part can change the fact that I am constantly screwing things up from a spiritual perspective. Sometimes it is the collective recitation of sins, which always pumps me up briefly with the thought that I did not do most of these…only to immediately deflate that because all of them are couched in the first-person-plural. It is not I have done some wicked thing or other, but we have done that wicked thing. And, unfortunately, it is all to clear to me that every single one of the items that appears on the list – and nearly every Jew knows that list by heart…ashamnu, anyone? – is something that is being perpetrated, and it’s being done where I can see it, and even though I may not be doing it myself, this does not exonerate me from the obligation to do something about it. If I can, I must: that is the lesson here.
This year, what hit me is a short two-line chant that appears once or twice during the entire day worth of praying. Hebrew transliterations aren’t great (and the translations are…complex) but here is how it goes:
Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fached klal.
What it means, more or less, is this:
“The entire world is a narrow bridge, but the important thing is not to fear.”
Some of the complexity comes from the fact that Hebrew uses the same word to indicate “space” and “time” – olam. It’s not entirely surprising that this is the language of the people who developed the original “big bang” theory of the origins of the universe four hundred years ago.
So one way to consider this saying is:
“The entirety of our physical existence and life is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear.”
Then, as I recall from the first time I encountered this piece of wisdom – because I am not a Hebrew linguist by any irrational stretch of the imagination – I was told that there’s a slightly different slant to be placed on the last half, in which case we get:
“Our life in this world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to look down.”
Looking down presumably leads to the aforementioned fear.
This is the thing that spoke to me on Saturday. I could go on for a good long while on this text, but I want to consider that last bit. The difference between “the main things is not to look down” versus “the important thing is not to fear.”
I’m thinking of this in light of the tragedy that fell on Huey’s barn-mate yesterday, because – among the grief that everyone in the barn seems to be experiencing at this time over that event – it certainly did cause me to look down and to grow afraid.
I don’t give myself halfway to any endeavor involving another living creature. It is part of the fabric of my soul that I am 100% there for any living being that I take into my care, whoever it is and whatever it needs. Because of this, I don’t undertake the obligation lightly…you won’t find me shopping for a pet unless I’m confident that I have the means to fill that creature’s needs. It also means that any time I take a creature into my care, I make the promise that I will be there until the end – whenever that comes – and that if it is necessary, I will take the responsibility of providing that end myself. A chore that I particularly hate because it is always so unbelievably painful. That’s something that never, ever gets easier, either.
So when I commit to a creature, I commit all the way. And I do it knowing very well that I am letting myself in for pain at the end. It’s a bargain I’m willing to take, for the most part. It’s also a bargain that I had to think very, very hard about before deciding to buy a horse. Some voice within told me that the agony of parting from a horse would make the pain of parting from a dog or cat look small by comparison. I didn’t understand this, but that voice within is always right, so I trusted it. And I did it anyway.
So. My life with my horse is a very narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to fear.
Check. Got that.
Then yesterday rolled around, and I got the smallest taste of what lies ahead, and it was more magnificent and awful than I could possibly imagine.
I looked down. And became afraid.
I’ve thought a lot about this in the last day (and night). I am left with philosophical questions: why is the bridge so narrow? Is it better to walk straight ahead, ignoring the drop? Is it possible to look down and not become afraid? Is it possible that the fear is not a problem?
I agree that my life is a very narrow bridge. Life is unbelievably fragile. Lives can change in the shortest of times, with no notice at all, no opportunity to prepare, unpredictably, permanently. They can end the same way. It happens all the time. It’s happened to me. It’s happened to people I know. It’s happened to people you know, too, even if it hasn’t happened to you yet. This physical existence has all of the tensile strength and robustness of a piece of wet kleenex.
Most of the time we don’t realize this. Most of the time we act and think and feel and behave as though it has the tensile strength of industrial-grade rubber. We live as though we will live forever, even while knowing on some level that this cannot be true. But still we act this way.
And then, unexpectedly, something happens. The horse next door goes from being fine to being dead in short order. Your student is in an accident that ends her life. Your father suffers a heart attack and dies at work. Your child develops a genetic disorder. Your friend has a fall and lies in a coma. You lose your job and your house. Something happens. And when it does, you come face to face with the ultimate reality: none of this lasts. None of it. Good fortune, ill fortune, the only constant is change. You can reduce your risks, but you cannot completely protect yourself. It happens, and you cannot control it and you cannot fix it and you cannot avoid it. It happens. And then you look down, and you realize how narrow this bridge is, and how far the ground is underneath.
I think that the real test of character is in what happens next: Do you freeze? Do you jump? Or do you collect yourself and say “Holy shit, why couldn’t this thing have been more sturdy? This is insane! I will be careful.” and move on?
This last response is the one to which I aspire. Recognize the risks, focus on the benefits, and do it anyway. Buy the horse, knowing that the time of unspeakable agony will come when you must part. Marry the spouse, knowing the same thing. Have the children, knowing that however you wish to protect them, you cannot, and that the time must come when you send them out into the world and trust that they will survive. Take the risk.
Walk out onto that narrow bridge, and curse it’s narrowness if you must, but go forward. Remember that life is fragile and short, but that this does not mean you should make all efforts to protect yourself from it. Respect every moment as a gift. You don’t know how many you have left, but that just makes each one all the more precious. You can’t hoard them, preserve them, hide them. This will waste them. You must use them. Find the joy in every moment, and know that the pain is coming eventually, but it’s not here right now. And when it is here, it will not last forever. Use your life. Live it.