Puny but Important: The Incredible Tension at the Heart of Living

IMG_1639A few years ago, I lived in a poor community in Haiti. One thing that often stood out to me about my friends in Haiti was that they seemed to have a better understanding of the fragility of life than most privileged Americans like myself. The Haitians I got to know saw illness and death more often than people from my background, and some of them regularly experienced hunger. It seemed that because of their understanding of the precariousness of life, they were more open to turning to God than Americans I know. This was apparent in everyday conversation — they would say si bon dieu vle (“if God wills it to be so”) whenever they spoke about the future, and they were eager to learn about my religious background and to discuss God.

I thought back to my Haitian friends a few years ago when I was confronted by a difficult situation in my personal life. When I sought the counsel of a rabbi I trust, he wanted to know if I had asked God for help. I said that I have been praying, but that no, I hadn’t asked God for help. For one I don’t believe in a God who can answer me in human language and I also don’t believe in a God who can intervene in the material world. I asked him what he thought would happen if I asked God for help.

He responded by telling a story from his own life. He was going through a very difficult time and when he was at the end of his rope, he asked for God’s help. Surrendering to the fact that he needed God was a turning point in his life.

Even if we generally don’t believe in a God who can intervene in our material lives, the humble act of admitting how much we can’t control can be hugely relieving. By opening ourselves to how much we are not masters of our own destiny, we can come to the realization that it is not only us who shape our lives. Perhaps this is what the people I knew in Haiti understood. Because of the trials of their lives, they knew to turn to God.

In addition to being psychologically helpful, accepting how much we don’t control seems to be empirically accurate. It is a fact that we don’t determine when we come into the world and when we leave it. It is a fact that many of the trials of life — such as the relatively inconsequential one I was in a few years ago — are out of our control. It is a fact that we are almost powerless when compared to the immensity of the universe.

This leads us to a paradox that I believe creates a tremendous creative energy. Despite the fact that we are puny in the grand scheme of things, our lives and our actions are deeply consequential. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about how our lives have moral significance, whether we want them to or not.

Accepting this paradox is a never ending practice. Soon after I feel powerful, I am reminded of how little I control. When I feel small and meaningless, I am reminded of the huge ethical obligation on me as a human. In the seconds that I am able to hold both of these truths at once, time moves forward and this understanding disappears.

This struggle to understand our place in the universe leads me back to my friends in Haiti. As a privileged American of our generation, I have been largely shielded from the fragility of life. I have experienced death and sickness so much less than the people I knew in Haiti, and I have been told from a young age that I can become whomever I want to be. My time in Haiti reminds me of how little I control, and of the fundamental truth that I am subject to the whims of the universe.

But if my time in Haiti taught me anything, it also taught me how important my actions are. The suffering I saw in Haiti is, after all, the direct product of human choices, especially those of Americans. It would be empirically wrong and deeply immoral to conclude that because of my smallness I am absolved of responsibility.

Living in harmony with this tension is certainly challenging, and there are no easy answers to the question of how to hold this paradox. I will say in closing that perhaps this tension is one reason people turn to the Bible and religious practice.

As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann explained last year on an episode of the podcast On Being, the Bible’s poetry and figurative language (and I would add, its stories), allow it to transcend ideology as it enters the realm of artistic expression. Because of this we can hold the improbability of being at once tiny and hugely consequential.

Moreover, the practice of prayer and religious ritual can help us hold onto this tension. For example, in one of the prayers traditional Jews say every morning, there is a preoccupation with the human capacity to do evil. Jews ask God “to bring us not to the hands of sin, nor to the hands of transgression and wrongdoing […] And let not the evil inclination rule inside us.”  And yet, in this same prayer, there is an acknowledgement of the extent to which humans depend on God, an external power, for existence. The prayer begins, “Blessed are you, eternal one our God, king of the universe, who removes sleep from my eyes.”

I hope that in the next year we can hold onto both how much of our life is out of our control and how important our actions are. To a healthy and happy new year, si bon dieu vle, God willing.

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