I came across this aphorism by Hillel the Elder yesterday:
“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers 1:14
Three powerful questions. That’s it. Oddly enough, I read Hillel’s questions right before I made the final decision to end my marriage–“If I am not for myself, who is for me?” (emphasis added) I couldn’t stop thinking about that one particular question. Is there a right answer? If I am not for myself, then what? Can I expect anyone to advocate for me? Can I reasonably expect anyone to ultimately be for me if I won’t do that first? If I won’t fight for the quality of my own life, then…what? I did some serious soul searching.
I made my decision and forgot Hillel’s words. I had to get on with the business of divorcing which is inordinately difficult.
On an evening flight home a few weeks ago, I wrote this in my journal:
What is it like to take your life into your hands and run with it? I mean really run with it. You finally believe that your life will end one day. You aren’t immortal. You will expire and die. This is actually a one shot deal. Sure, it’s nice to philosophise about Karma, heaven, reaping and sowing, and what might be waiting for us in the hereafter, but we don’t live in the Great Beyond. We don’t even live in tomorrow or tomorrow’s tomorrow’s tomorrow. Yesterday and yesteryear have passed.
We have today. Now. This moment. Which is about to become another bygone breath.
Does it matter? It must matter because it’s all we have.
What a strange guarantee. The guarantee of the present. Some people like to say that there are only two guarantees in life–death and taxes. There are more. Little is certain in life. Even taxes. The tax codes are always changing, and we don’t know when death will claim any of us. Uncertainty is the constant, and this is a guarantee.
That…and now. The present. We are always moving from the past into the present attempting to inform and shape the future–if we are paying attention. If we are not, then the present moves around us becoming our past, and yet it still informs and shapes our future which will ultimately become our present and flow into what was.
And my question remains:
Have you ever lived as if the present had the most power? As if every choice and belief that you currently held and made mattered more than anything?
What if you did?
What if how you ate began to matter more?
What if what you believed about the world, media, entertainment, and people were thoughtfully examined?
What if how you treated others daily came under your own scrutiny?
What if everything you believed about yourself came under your own scrutiny?
What if you examined how you loved? How you had sex? How you thought about your sexuality and body?
What if you considered thinking bigger? Being kinder to others and yourself? Letting go of negativity and old beliefs that hinder you in exchange for something better?
What if you went on the hunt for a better definition of “good” or “happy”?
What kind of life would you live if you really understood that all you were guaranteed is now and the rest is not certain at all?
What kind of life would you want?
Coming upon Hillel’s words again yesterday struck me.
“If not now, when?”
Was it a coincidence that almost a year later I was essentially asking myself the same question? Probably not. At what point do we take full responsibility for everything in our lives, everything that we’ve become, everything that we believe, everything that we do, and make a decision to do something about what we lack and what we really want? Do we even know what we really want? How do we go about figuring that out? It’s really now or never, isn’t it? All we have is now.
As I ask it of myself, I’ll ask it of you. If not now, when?
“In the end, only enthusiasm for your own growth will fuel your transformation.”–Alan Morinis
- Me, Myself, and I: Ethics of the Fathers 1:14
- With Heart in Mind: Mussar Teachings to Transform Your Life by Alan Morinis
- Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings and Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar by Alan Morinis (Every Day, Holy Day is an essential companion for anyone who wants to experience the life-changing gifts of Mussar. The program laid out in this book focuses on 26 traits (middot)—such as loving-kindness, strength, generosity, compassion, honor, and equanimity—each of which takes center stage for a week of contemplation and exercises, in order to develop and refine that quality in yourself.)