I saw it on the sidewalk, written in chalk, while strolling through the Golden Gate park, “Have a great EVERYTHING” it said. It caught my attention, I snapped a picture, I posted it to Twitter. I didn’t spend more time thinking about it until one follower responded, “A Joker Blessing (good for everything)” which totally caught my attention – since I didn’t know if that was a good thing, or bad thing. I know we don’t live in a binary world but sometimes you just want to know – good or bad, true or false – yes or no.
I used to believe that most of life fell into two neat categories – right and wrong. Don’t fault me for having those beliefs – it’s what, and how, I was taught. But life has a way of teaching perspectives that contradict, exposing half-truths and distortions that confuse, and dispatching posers and impostors that divert the path. And here I am, a half-centenarian, still wondering.
In the Jewish calendar we are at the end of the Torah, and the beginning of a new year – a time for reviewing the past while anticipating the future. As we begin the cycle again we have the opportunity to repeat and reinforce, not repeat and attempt a re-do, or some combination of all these aspects: repeat, reinforce, change and re-do. The Hebrew word for year is sha-nah, from the root to change, to repeat, to do again. No small coincidence.
When I look back and reflect on the “everything” in my life I generally feel that I’ve been blessed. What I’m not clear on is if the blessing is in making choices or making the right choices. And if it even matters. A distorted blessing, or an after-the-fact-I-understood blessing – is still – a blessing. That I possess this perspective may be the richest blessing of them all.
Years ago I read Stephen Dubner’s memoir about his search for himself and the dramatic changes he made in his life in stark contrast to the changes his parents made, just a few decades earlier. Reading the prologue to his book – which I imagine he penned at the completion of his story – took my breath away. It was as if he heard the words rattling around in my head.
“Only when a good piece of your life has unspooled can you look back and see how one connection led to the next, how a seemingly random sequence of events conspired to propel you down a certain path – and then you begin to doubt that there was anything random about that journey at all. You begin to ask yourself: Are all these connections truly a product of chance and reason, or do they represent our connection to the Divine, inlaid on our souls like some indelible fingerprint of God.”
So is there a right path in life and whatever path we choose to walk ultimately leads us to our path – or does the path we walk become our path after a lifetime of walking that direction. Perhaps this is two sides of the same coin – a “joker blessing” – whichever way you play it, it all leads to good because it all leads to your unique path.
Two stories in the Jewish tradition reflect a similar outlook from different perspectives.
- Rabbi Akiva taught: A person should always say: “Everything that G-d does, He does for the good.”
- Why was he called Nachum Ish Gam Zu (“Nachum This Too”)? Because whatever happened to him, he would say: “This, too, is for the good.”
There is a subtle difference between the two positions though not a debate about right and wrong. Both affirm that whatever happens is “for the good” but where Ish Gam Zu actually points to the thing itself and the outcome as good – Rabbi Akiva does not. Some things, in Rabbi Akiva’s perspective, are not good, some things are bad even though the outcome is “for the good.”
Growing up I often heard the rebuke, “Who makes excuses? Failure!” Clearly excuses and failure were both bad and something that I was to steer clear of. But that’s how life goes – we make mistakes, do bad things, choose the wrong option. And yes, we fail. Should we claim that it is “for the good” and that it is part of the journeying on our life’s path? Perhaps “for the good” comes about when we recognize that we made a poor choice, and we learn from that choice and apply the lessons to our future steps. Is the blessing in making the mistake, recognizing that it was a mistake, learning from the mistake – or some combination of all these aspects?
I’m walking my path – making my mistakes and trying each year to repeat some things and change up some others. I’m sure to fail, even at my ripe age… but I will not make excuses for them or feel shamed by them. I will continue to look for the blessings scattered all across my path.
Which has me wondering if a blessing might be a bad thing. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.
Have a blessed new year and a great everything!