I Sought Order

This do I teach:
The more you seek security, the more you are haunted by insecurity.
The more you desire surety, the more you are plagued by change.
The more you pretend to permanence, the more you invite suffering.
The more you do for control, the less you do for joy.
–  Ecclesiastes 1: 15-18

It seems we have the whole of life backward.  We want what we cannot get, and we reject that which we have in abundance.  We want the world to fit into a neat and understandable package. What we get is a jumble of experiences from which we fashion a life.

We want life to fit our story about life; instead we find ourselves in a swirling soup of ever-changing events some of which seem to make no sense whatsoever.

So Solomon is correct: The more I crave security, the more I am haunted by its absence. The more I seek to maintain the status quo, no matter how hurtful or damaging to me and others, the more things slip through my fingers and change against my will. Indeed — and this is his main point — my will does not much matter. Things happen whether I will them to or not. Reality does not give a damn about what I want; it just does what it does.

Our task then is simply to be fully present to whatever is happening now. When we are fully present, we seem to know what to do. Doing become effortless, choiceless. We are not weighing options but simply taking up the task that the moment presents.

My friend Leon is Chaplin at a local hospital. We cover for each other when one of us is out town. Late one evening I got a call from his hospital about a family whose mother was dying. Leon was unavailable, and they asked me to drive to the hospital and help in any way I could.

When I arrived at the hospital, a woman had just died and the family was being ushered out of a room by an orderly. I asked the family if they had a chance to pray with her mother and say goodbye. They had not and the orderly was kind enough to let us back into the mother’s room to be with her for a while longer. I encouraged the family to gather around their mother and take turns speaking to her — telling her they loved her, that they would miss her and that though it was sad, it was okay, that it was her time to die. As they spoke to their mother, the dead woman’s eyes suddenly filled with blood and thick red tears began to stream down her cheeks. I have never seen this happen to anyone before, and neither had her family. They stop talking and just stared, their bodies tense.

Part of me was horrified. I had performed this kind of service for people many times and this had never happened before. If I had thought about what to do, I suspect I would have left the room and called for a nurse. But I did not think about it. Instead, I sat on the bed, took the woman’s head in my arms, and wiped away the blood with a towel that had been hanging on the bed rail. I nodded to the family and encouraged them to continue speaking to her. I did all of this is if it was the most natural thing in the world. And at the time it was. After I left the hospital and returned my car however, I began shaking all over.

I still feel that I did the right thing and I learned something in the process. The lesson I learned was not simply what to do in this particular situation; rather, I learned the wisdom that comes when we are simply present. I did not have a set procedure to handle the situation we faced. In fact it was not a “situation” that needed handling. It was simply a family grieving, a mother bleeding, and a rabbi with an access to a towel.

This is what I mean by being present to the moment.  Nothing magical or extraordinary, just life as it is – often messy and rarely scripted. The more I empty myself of self and of the quest for surety, permanence, and control that defines the self, the more I am at home in the chaos of my life. The less we imagine what our lives ought to be, the more we can be present to what they really are. And in this, grace – an ease of doing – that we cannot imagine as long as we seek to control and manipulate things to our end.

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RABBI RAMI SHAPIRO is an award winning author, poet, essayist, and educator whose poems have been anthologized in over a dozen volumes, and whose prayers are used in prayer books around the world. Rami received rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and holds both PHD and DD degrees. A congregational rabbi for 20 years, Rabbi Rami is currently Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. In addition to writing books, Rami writes a regular column for Spirituality and Health magazine called "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," offers daily fractured proverbs called "Jaded Wisdom" via Twitter, and blogs at rabbirami.blogspot.com.

5 responses to “Excerpt from Ecclesiastes

  1. Zara says:

    This struck a nerve with me – having just cone through a particularly chaotic time. I have spent the last few months trying to make sense of my own reality and the only thing has has become clear is that sometimes it just doesn’t. Acceptance is key, acceptance for what is and what isn’t. It’s a concept I’m still trying to grasp. Thank you.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Rabbi Rami,

    I feel as if the words of Solomon were written for me.
    I am desperate for the security which would result in safety for my family.
    I am terrified of change and its adherent uncertainty and, indeed, the certainty of growing older and having no control over my life or that of my loved ones.
    This preoccupation saps the joy I could be swimming in.
    I didn’t even realize that I was drowning in sand.

  3. jmblaine says:

    This is the Rabbi
    I so often
    speak of –

    His books have
    meant a great to me
    & I am honored
    to have him here.

    His TNB self-interview
    is excellent
    as well.

  4. J.M. Blaine says:

    The above story is from
    Rami’s earlier book
    “The Way of Solomon”
    which sadly, is out of print.

    His new book,
    also on Ecclesiastes,
    is more standard
    exegesis & therefore
    difficult to format
    for TNB purposes.
    We decided to share
    his earlier story
    while showing his latest release.

    Both books are excellent
    & Way of Solomon,
    is well worth whatever
    effort & price it takes
    to find.

  5. sheree says:

    Ten words changed my life about 35 years ago. Fear ye not, for the worst is yet to come.

    I will look for the books listed. I want to understand more about the above ten words that floated out of the sky and into my mind all those years ago. Maybe it was God talking to me and not just my mind playing a well placed trick on me.

    Cheers and thanks for posting this bit of wisdom. It was well received and welcomed knowledge

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