The massive problems and loss of opportunities that characterize current culture make it more difficult for individuals to find a meaningful orientation in the course of their lives. Young people face a world lacking in jobs, but flooded with uncertainties. At the same time, older folks live longer and longer, but face greater and greater insecurity.
Whether the subject is the economy, politics or the weather, the overall climate of life appears increasingly uncertain and liable to extreme changes. Wherever one might turn, the modern world has far more questions than answers.
An old idea suggests that each person’s life is also a question being asked of the world; each life a specific question that isn’t completely answered until a person’s last breath goes out. Regardless of the conditions affecting the outer world, the old idea was to enter the question of one’s own life fully and become the living answer. Those who can answer the essential question inside become more able to handle the uncertainties around them.
There’s a famous story of an old rabbi who lay on his deathbed as his final hour drew near. His name was Zushya and he had lived a full life. He was widely known and greatly respected as a holy man and scholar. He had taught others for many years and was loved by his students for his honesty and for his wit. Now that his time had come, his students gathered round to share in his final moments.
When a student asked how he felt, the old teacher answered with characteristic honesty. “I am afraid to face God,” he said, “I fear that I will be found wanting in the world to come.” The students were shocked; how could such a thing be possible? Their teacher was an exceptional spiritual leader who had taught them generously and guided them wisely. The students began to reassure the teacher: “Rabbi you are a pure and righteous man. You have shown the leadership of Abraham, the courage of Jacob, the vision of Moses. What can you have to fear in facing God?”
Death is a great teacher, they used to say, and often a true teacher will use their own death as a final lesson on life. With failing breath, Zushya replied, “I am not afraid that God will ask me why I was not more like Abraham or not more like Moses. I can answer honestly that I did not have the god-given abilities of Abraham or the talents of Moses. But, if God asks me, ‘Zushya, why were you not more like Zushya?’ For that I have no answer at all!” In so saying, Zushya passed into the world that waits beyond this one.
The teaching story of Zushya and the end of life has traveled all over the world. Although a simple tale, it takes up big questions about both life and about death. It suggests that at the time of our death the original question of our life returns. The dreaded day of judgment or final exam has but a single question. Rather than the generalities of religion or philosophy, the only question asked in the end is: Did you become yourself?
Since each life is unique to begin with, it is the “uniqueness” of the individual that is in question at the end. Saint or sinner, rabbi or banker, rich or poor, there will be but one thing to answer for when the end comes around. Have you lived the life intended for you? Or did you substitute someone else’s ideas or settle for abstract rules? Having received the gift of life, did you learn the nature of your own gifts and the purpose of them?
The students may have expected a display of piety or the reassurance of a man of faith meeting his maker, but the holy man had the true gift for teaching and used it even at the last moment. He turned the attention of the young people, not to some divinity outside themselves, but toward the seeds of the divine hidden within them. Those who believe that all the answers are “out there somewhere” are in for a shock when the final question asks who they are within themselves.
For this conversation, God is simply the shortest way to refer to the divine and to the god-given gifts and talents planted in the soul before each person is born. In the end, the divine is most interested in what we do with the unique gifts and precise challenges we are each given. That is what was meant by the old idea that “inside people is where God learns.” When a person becomes uniquely themselves and a life becomes fully lived, everyone involved learns something.
Being a true teacher, Rabbi Zushya revealed an essential truth about life at the moment of his death. His death became a gift of life for others. The most revered figures in all meaningful traditions became memorable because they were uniquely themselves. Their behavior was uncommon, exceptional and even radical in some way. Whether a spiritual teacher or an artist, a healer or a leader, they are remembered because they managed to manifest the “uniqueness” within them.
One of the open secrets of life on earth is that the answer to life’s burning questions has been seeded within each soul to begin with. We may have to travel far into the world and face many troubling questions before we turn within for essential answers. What we truly seek never arrives from the outside; it has been hidden within us all along. That’s the final lesson and the last word, whenever life becomes riddled with uncertainty.
There can be no general answer to a specific question; what is most wise for one person can prove foolish for another. Wisdom, like love, begins within and is all about the specifics. In a world full of rapid changes, impossible tasks and mounting questions, the older, wiser parts of our souls keep trying to catch up to us. Call it the inner spirit, the soul’s genius or the deep self within. It has many names, but each refers to the deeper, wiser self that knows the inner shape and outer aim of our lives.
Whether fate deals us a sudden tragedy or a period of loss, a betrayal or unexpected burden, the question becomes whether we will become a bigger person or a smaller one. In all cases, the wisest thing is to become more fully one’s unique self.