When Nothing is Something

I was reading a fiction short story the other day and it was a typical story of a couple with empty lives and no idea how to break out of the emptiness. So they indulge their egos and their fantasies and the story doesn’t end well. It is the kind of story that always leaves me sad because they live such a meaningless life.
 We want our actions to be for a purpose but there is so much in life that conspires against meaning. We are told over and over what we need to do to be successful, popular, cool and complete but no matter how hard we try, we never seem to get over the emptiness. We educate ourselves for jobs that we think will be fulfilling and purposeful but the idea of doing one thing for a lifetime doesn’t seem to inspire us. We go places but each one ends up looking the same as the last. We try all kinds of activities; bungee jump, parachute from planes, indulge in drugs and drink, go for whatever we think will give us the next “rush”. We always want more, and when it is over, we still don’t think it was enough. We spend all kinds of money trying to look our best but we are still unhappy when we look in the mirror. The problem isn’t outside, the problem is inside
I think this is also why this election season is so upsetting. I understand that the economy is bad and there are people out there suffering but to listen to the candidates for government offices, there are no real solutions other than “I am better than he is”. No matter what ails the country, the solution is always “vote for me”. We want what will be good for us and our personal needs and the candidates are only happy to tell us what we want to hear. The conversation is just as vapid as our lives.  So we tune out the election noise and of course, if we choose not to vote, we choose not to be a part of making a difference.  The problem is not about what will be good for me, but what will be, in the end, good for the country and that is a very hard decision that takes time and effort to research and decide. It means we will have to see beyond ourselves and take into account the needs of others.
I think the issue here is that we are always putting ourselves first and then not understanding why this does not make us feel any better. The more we build up ourselves, the more we feel our lives are empty. Perhaps this is just one of the many illusions of life. We keep doing more and yet we don’t get any satisfaction from any of it. We think we just need to buy one more thing and we will be happy but we are deluding ourselves and the more we delude ourselves, the more unhappy we are.
Pirke Avot, the ethical teachings of the rabbis, has this teaching from the sage  ben Zoma, “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has. Who is wise? He who learns from everyone. Who is strong? He who controls his passions. Who is honored? He who honors others.”  In every case, the real answer is the opposite of what we might think.  Wealth is not about what you have, but how you feel about it. Wisdom is not about what you know, but about where you go to learn. Strength is not about lifting weights, but about controlling our cravings and honor is not what you get, but what you give.
Mystics like to say that only when we dissolve our ego can we begin to make a difference We need so much humility so that we virtually cease to exist as a separate entity; only then can we really begin to exist as part of the human organism, as part of life itself. Our ego needs be reduced to nothing before we can begin to become something. Only when we lose ourselves in the source of all existence, can we begin to have a meaningful existence.
The same applies to life, it is not about me, it is about others. Notice how the people who are at peace with themselves and life are those who have God at the center of their world. Maybe they don’t see their center being about God but when they put others at the center, the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, the weak, the helpless, the wounded, etc. at the center of their world, they understand what really making a difference is all about. The world looks different after you put a sandwich into the hand of another person who will only have that sandwich to eat all day. Your world will never be the same when the child you are tutoring finally gets the math you are teaching. Life is different when  we help someone overcome their obstacles. It is not about us. It is always about others. Happiness is about relationships. Accomplishments are about the success of others.  Satisfaction comes when we help others achieve their goals.

One thought on “When Nothing is Something

  1. Hi, Rabbi. Thanks for providing me the reminder to look within and think about what is real. You wrote:"It means we will have to see beyond ourselves and take into account the needs of others." I think this sums up a great deal of what makes life meaningful.

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