Yom Kippur: Life as a Terminal Illness

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I included this reading in our service for Shabbat Shuvah yesterday: an excerpt from a 1999 commencement speech by one of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen. I believe it’s about as wonderful a Yom Kippur message as you will find.

I’ll be offline until Monday evening. May we all be sealed for health, meaning, peace and life in the coming year…

So here’s what I wanted to tell you today: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast?

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger.

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure; it is work. Each time you look at your diploma, remember that you are still a student, still learning how to best treasure your connection to others. Pick up the phone. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your Mom. Hug your Dad.

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas in the suburban neighborhood where you grew up; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black, black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is the best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted.

Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take money you would have spent on beers and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister. All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough.

It is so easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live.

I learned to live many years ago. Something really, really bad happened to me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all.

I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.

I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of it back because I believed in it completely and utterly. And I tried to do that, in part, by telling others what I had learned.  By telling them this: Consider the lilies of the field.  Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy.

And think of life as a terminal illness because if you do, you will live it with joy and passion as it ought to be lived.

Well, you can learn all those things, out there, if you get a real life, a full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too, a life of love and laughs and a connection to other human beings. Just keep your eyes and ears open. Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is everywhere. The exam comes at the very end.

3 thoughts on “Yom Kippur: Life as a Terminal Illness

  1. Listening to it was penetrating, but reading it makes it even more powerful. She’s one of my favorites, too, and I miss her column in Newsweek. Thank you for putting her words out where more people can share.

  2. What a wonderful reading! Thank you for posting this. This, on top of all the Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur droshot, really rounds off the seasonal wisdoms.

    Much to think about and learn. I appreciate your sharing this.

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