These days I’m approaching the six-decade mark in rather odd circumstances. The Gaza War has reignited, and last night we in Beersheva were woken up twice by rocket alarms, meaning we had to rush out to the stairwell and hear the big booms of Iron Dome interceptors knocking Hamas rockets out of the sky. In other words, not the ideal environment for stocktaking and peaceful reflection.
Even so, the onset of my 60th gives rise to thoughts, so I’ll try, amid the commotion, to summarize some of what I see as life’s lessons.
1. Evil is bewildering but not demoralizing.
Here in Israel we live within circles of evil. The immediate circle is the terror organizations on our Gazan, Lebanese, and Syrian borders, of which a couple in Gaza are now attacking us. Slightly farther away on the map are the atrocity stories now coming out of Iraq and Syria.
These stories have a bewildering effect on me. I read them, or look at the videos or parts of videos that I can stand to look at, and don’t understand how humans, members of the same species I belong to, could be performing such acts. The stories and images are, of course, instantly available everywhere; but here in Israel it’s part of the ambience — if it weren’t for our powerful army they’d be coming for us.
One reaction to such incomprehensible horrors could be to tune out, to create a safe space for oneself and focus on the immediate. But another reaction is to realize that, if evil is capable of these depths, then the good-evil dichotomy is all the more dramatic and important. If there are religious precepts, ideologies, values, or thoughts that can lead people to such acts, then—along with the imperative of physically, militarily combating evil—the task of cultivating religious precepts or ideologies or values or thoughts that foster moral behavior instead of horrific behavior, the task of trying to be decent, is all the more urgent.
In my life I’ve come to see it that way. No amount of evil obliterates meaning; it can only intensify meaning. It would have been much better if Nazism had never existed—but it did, and what is now most remembered about Churchill is his warning about it and fighting it.
2. Much (not all) of the problem of God and evil is solved by the fact of free will.
Although I’m definitely not proud of everything I’ve done, I’m proud of some things I’ve done. A couple of not-too-personal examples: (1) When still an American Jew, I had what I consider the moral insight that, if at all possible, one should move to Israel, and I acted on it. (2) When my son was forced to give up his cat and no one wanted to take her, I took her even though I thought I didn’t want to live with a cat. She’s now been with me for ten years, and solely because of me has a good life.
The only way I can possibly be proud of these good deeds is because I didn’t have to do them. I could easily, comfortably have stayed in America; about the cat I could have said, “Too bad, she’ll have to fend for herself in the streets of Jerusalem.” Undoubtedly it would have been a lot simpler if God had made me, instead of a flawed human being living in a flawed world, an angel floating in some ethereality and singing his praises. But, given the choice, I’ve come to realize that, even with all the risks involved, I would prefer the former alternative—because it opens the possibility of moral (and other kinds of) achievement, of having things to be proud of. Another way of saying this is that meaning does not appear to be possible without free will, and free will, of course, has to entail possibilities of doing things that are less good and even evil.
To realize this doesn’t entirely put my mind at rest about all the appalling things that happen, doesn’t thoroughly “justify the ways of God to men.” But it does explain—and justify—the way things are to a substantial extent.
3. God may intervene in our personal lives.
I can’t say with confidence that he does, but can’t—anymore—say with confidence that he doesn’t, either.
At least I see, by now, a pattern: everything I do in the Jewish or Israeli direction bears fruit. Having grown up in a very secular Jewish family, the chances wouldn’t have seemed high that I would turn so emphatically in the Jewish and ultimately, Israeli direction. And indeed, starting out in adulthood, I had a different ambition: to succeed as an American fiction writer.
I kept plugging away at that for a long time, both before and after moving to Israel. And yet, again and again—in retrospect, a bewildering number of times—I kept getting turned back just when it seemed I had at last arrived; some final, delicate decision always went against me. Meanwhile I was writing more and more Israeli nonfiction, and that went a lot better. My personal life went better in Israel, too. And the freelance work I do to supplement my writing habit has also gone much better than it did in the States.
The idea of God intervening raises problems for people; why wouldn’t he intervene to help those in really dire straits? (Actually there is evidence from near-death experiences that he does.) If he intervenes, I don’t know why he seems to be selective, sporadic, and inconsistent about it. But I can’t dismiss the sense that, in the course my life has taken, both my own free will and something else have been at play.
4. Don’t waste time regretting things.
I’ve come to feel that there’s not much point in raking over the past, looking at mistakes, thinking how I could have avoided them and how things would have gone if I had. Yes, some of my actions seem clearly to have been mistakes; yet if you look far enough along the chain of causality, at what resulted from them, you come sooner or later to things that are good or even very good. The other side of the coin is that there is no way to know for sure if avoiding the mistakes, taking a different course, would ultimately have turned out better—or even well.
The moral of this story is not, of course, that you should just do whatever because it doesn’t make any difference. It’s that, after decades have passed, you end up in a certain place, and you can’t know if it could have been a better place; or, even if it could have, you can’t do anything about it now. The past doesn’t have too much to offer because it doesn’t give clear answers. The trick is to feel that there are some meaningful, important things to do in the present—and that, fortunately, I do feel.
5. Forgiveness is supreme.
And then there are the people who, I could say, did me some harm, made my life significantly less good than it could have been. Over the years I observe an ebbing of anger toward them till almost none is left. They were people who were dealt a considerably worse hand than I was; I can hardly say that, if dealt such a hand, I would have done better.
Judaism and Christianity put much emphasis on God’s forgiving nature; and now we have thousands of near-death-experience reports about encountering a being of unconditional love. Forgiveness is the thing that can pick up the pieces of a shattered universe and make it whole again. I’m not talking about atrocities; that’s a separate matter. But when it comes to the more “normal” wrongs people inflict on each other, anger—if one can get out of it—is not a good place to dwell.
image illustration via shutterstock / Ruth Black