The Purpose of Beginnings and the Beginnings of Purpose

A few years ago, there was a terrific newspaper cartoon from the strip “Non Sequitur” entitled “The Philosophical Showdown.” It showed two men, each carrying a large sign, about to physically run into each other at a street corner. One man’s sign was urging everyone to, “Repent! This could be your last day!” The other man’s sign was reminding everyone to, “Rejoice! Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

What makes this such a wonderful incongruity is not just that each man’s sign is always true – it’s that every so often, we need to be reminded of both truths, especially as we are currently between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Indeed, one common quote that recurs throughout the High Holy Days comes from Rabbi Eliezer, who taught “‘Repent one day before your death.’ His disciples asked, ‘How can one know what day that will be?’ [Rabbi Eliezer] responded: ‘Precisely! Repent today…in case you should die tomorrow. Thus will you spend all your days wisely.’”

When we remember that “this could be our last day,” we start thinking about the big questions of life – “When I am gone, what kind of person do I want to have been?” And yet when we remember that “today is the first day of the rest of our lives,” we start thinking about the more practical questions of life – “What can I do today that will lead me towards the person I want to become?” The High Holy Days are our time to delve into the implications of both sides of this “philosophical showdown,” and examine both the beginnings of purpose and the purpose of beginnings.

But there’s a rub. Even if we take these 10 days of repentance to look deep within ourselves and determine exactly what kind of person we want to be, when the moment comes for us to actually do the hard work that’s necessary, amnesia frequently manages to kick in. Professor Daniel Gilbert phrases it this way:

[When our sister asks if we can] babysit the nephews and nieces next month…we look forward to the obligation even as we jot it in our diary. [But t]hen, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meal [lunches], set up the Barbie playset, and [try to] ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on, we wonder what in the world we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here’s what we were thinking: [we tend to see] baby-sitting next month [as] an “act of love”…[but] baby-sitting right now [as] an “act of lunch.” (adapted from Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness)

When we look towards the far-off horizon of our future, we visualize the wonderful human being we hope to become this year. But as we near the horizon, and start to see the day-to-day reality, we forget that in fact, “acts of love” consist almost exclusively of “acts of lunch.” It is often hard enough to simply imagine what kind of person we want to become; it is even harder to take the steps to do it.

And that is where the idea of teshuvah comes in. Teshuvah – repentance – truly means “a returning.” It is a recognition that we have gone off course in our lives — and an opportunity to come back.

There’s an image I’ve always found helpful for teshuvah. When a pilot flies from one city to the next, in actuality, the plane is off course almost 90 percent of the time. But if that’s the case, then how does it happen that nearly every single plane arrives at its destination safe and sound? It’s almost always off-course!

It’s because the pilot knows where the plane started, where he wants the plane to go, and has a plan to get from point A to point B. And as the plane goes on its journey, the pilot always compares where the plane is relative to where he wants it to be and then uses feedback from the surrounding environment to get it back on course. (adapted from Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families)

For us as well, we are often off-course in our lives – maybe even up to 90 percent of the time. We overreact, we say an unkind word, we fail to come through for our friends or family, we micromanage, we get angry, we get impatient. But ultimately, if we know both where we actually are and where we want to be going, and then do what we can get back on course, we can return. We can make teshuvah, a return to the person we want ourselves to be.

Each day is an opportunity to see our lives in two different ways. We can see it as potentially “the last day of our lives,” and use that to explore the beginnings of purpose. And we can always see it as “the first day of the rest of our lives,” and use that to explore the purpose of beginnings.

Most all, let’s remember that each day is an opportunity to realize that how we lead our lives is one step towards the person we will ultimately become.

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