I have long loved the hopefulness of the Jewish tradition – the way it roots itself in the realness and responsibility of this moment, understanding that the life we are living is the only one we can be sure of, that it’s vanishingly short, that there is much yet to do be done, and that each of us has the possibility of contributing.
And I appreciate very much how this hopefulness is informed by realism about what’s possible.
‘It is not your duty to complete the work [of improving the world]…‘, writes Rabbi Tarfon, a 2nd century sage, ‘…but neither are you free to desist from it‘.
There it is. What needs doing in the world is so much bigger than any one of us can muster – a realisation that could so easily be a source of despair. But in Tarfon’s hands it’s a call to possibility and responsibility. We have to begin, even though we may not quite understand what we are beginning, even though the results of our labours may only benefit those who come long after us, who we will never know. And when we find ourselves in the darkness, when nothing seems possible, when we are overwhelmed by the magnitude of things and floored by our smallness – one step.
And then one step.
And then one step.
But at the same time, we can lay a trap for ourselves with hope, which the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus understands well. Hope, particularly in the form of desire, he says, can be a source of great suffering. It can leave us permanently dissatisfied with the life we’re living, even when we have reason to be grateful.
‘Do not spoil what you have‘, he says, ‘by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.‘
What you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.
We know how that goes. We imagine a new car will make us happy, only to find a few days into owning it that we have our eye on a newer model. We imagine that power, or position, or a house, or a new relationship, or a change of government, or more money in our pocket will be the answer, only to find ourselves with the same emptiness and longing transposed to a new situation.
We so easily find our lives consumed by an endless and insatiable comparison between what is and what we imagine could be.
Epicurus’ own solution to this difficulty was a kind of radical simplicity and acceptance. He was an advocate of the virtues of living a life of obscurity – not trying to change too much, nor having dreams that are too big, so that we can appreciate and be genuinely grateful for what is already in front of us.
It seems to me that to be human is to inhabit the tension between Epicurus and Tarfon – learning to cherish the gifts we have, and at the same time hoping for and working towards something much better both for ourselves and for those around us. And it is, as far as I can tell from my own life, a genuine tension for many of us – pulled as we are between our deepest, most heartfelt unmet longings and our wish to feel happy or at least fulfilled right where we are.
It can be a confusing and painful place to be, particularly when we get caught up in the anguish of knowing we can’t have the world be just the way we want it. Or when our hope and acceptance are extinguished and smothered by resentment, fear, and despair at our inability to control things.
Perhaps the work of a human life is to learn to inhabit the tension between is and could be or, more fully, to be a bridge that unites both poles. Here maybe we can learn the craft of living in the world as it is, knowing we don’t have to save it, and at the same time being the ones who commit ourselves to the one next, hopeful, step.
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