~Ralph Waldo Emerson
It's a sad reality of human nature: we miss out enjoying the blessings that fill our lives because we take them for granted. Until we don't have them any more.
How many hours do we fritter away on texts and tweets and Facebook updates? Are these more satisfying than friends and family, more enlivening than smelling the roses and gazing at the stars? Not in a thousand years.
We think we can have it both ways. After all, the roses will be there tomorrow; and the stars will be there forever.
Until they aren't. Having been bred for beauty, many of our roses have no fragrance whatsoever. And most of us have never beheld the wonder of the Milky Way. It disappeared decades ago behind the veil of urban pall.
AWAKE, MY GLORY!
Nature has its own way of reminding us to pay attention. Sometimes it's through extraordinary beauty. And sometimes it's through awesome power. Last month, the light of the sun disappeared at midday as the eclipse moved across the country. This month, the fury of life-giving water uprooted the lives of millions.
The misery inflicted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was horrific to watch, and exponentially more horrific to endure. From thousands of miles away, Americans shook their heads at scenes of devastated communities, shattered homes, and displaced families. We wrote relief checks, offered prayers, gave thanks for our own safety, and carried on with our lives.
We wished we could do more. But what more we could do?
Consider this: Maimonides (d. 1204) writes that anyone who hears of human suffering and does not respond with repentance and good deed is a cruel person.
The most effective way to make the world a better place is by making ourselves better people. Yes, I can work to save the rainforests and save the whales. I can raise money for refugees and volunteer my time to Habitat for Humanity. I can do these things, and I should.
Ultimately, however, the only thing I can be certain of changing is myself.
If I give charity out of guilt, I'm really just bribing my conscience to leave me alone. If I write a check because I think I'm going to relieve human suffering, I'm merely indulging my ego. It's true, of course, that the recipients will benefit from any act of giving regardless of motivation. But am I benefitting myself as well?
LEARNING TO LOVE
Acts of kindness and charity should be expressions of sharing another's pain --- a natural, reflexive response to human suffering. When I give what I can, whether a lot or a little, I join with others to raise our collective voice and proclaim that we will not stand idly by and abandon others to their fate, even if we have no real control over how fate will deal with them.
Purely motivated giving transforms us into giving people. By taking action when others are in need we learn to love our fellows as we love ourselves. And when we do, we become more appreciative of the relationships that are the source of true happiness.
The Jewish prayer book contains a series of blessings we recite each morning to acknowledge who we are and why we exist. Among those blessings we find the following:
Blessed are You, Lord, our G-d, King of the universe, who stretches out the earth above the waters.
Our place in this world is precarious. The laws of nature operate with both granite consistency and fickle unpredictability. If we want to weather the storms of life, we need the support of others, which means we have to be there when others need support from us.
As individuals, we are exposed and vulnerable to the vagaries of happenstance. As a community, we find that the winds of fortune will not overturn our lives, and the waters of uncertainty will never extinguish our spirit. Out of the darkness of misfortune, the light of fellowship will shine down on us like the brightest of stars.