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Rabbi Rami's Guide to Life's 5 Biggest Questions

Grow

Let’s face it. The biggest unknown in a parent’s life is her child. These beings come into the world without papers. We have no idea who they are, where they came from, what they are supposed to do, where they are going, or why they exist at all. So what do we do? We make up stories: stories about them and stories about ourselves; stories about nature, about life, death, and afterlife; stories about fate, karma, destiny, heavens and hells, and rewards and punishments. And we tell these stories to our kids. Except we don’t tell them they are stories. We offer them with the same matter-of-factness that we use when we tell them that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and not to take candy from strangers. 

The stories I’m talking about aren’t just “once upon a time” stories ― the stories you read to your children at bedtime. The stories I’m talking about include the more subtle stories we tell our children, the stories we pretend aren’t stories at all but facts, truths, and inescapable realities. These are stories that answer the five existential questions:

Who am I?

Where did I come from?

Where am I going?

What am I here to do?

and Why?

In this essay (a synopsis of my new book, the Rabbi Rami Guide to Parenting), I am going to give stories that answer all five questions. I’m not asking you to agree with me, but perhaps these will help with the stories you tell your children ― and perhaps even the stories you tell yourself. Here goes:

Q: Who am I?

A: You are a tube.

Let’s start concretely: you are a body. And what is this body? It is basically a tube, not so different from that of a worm. Food goes in at one end; waste comes out at the other; and in between, all kinds of cool things happen. 

The body is so complex that even the doctors on House usually need the entire time allotted to them between commercials to figure out what is wrong with their patient. And even when they do, the patient sometimes dies anyway. While it may be gratifying to the doctors to know why a person dies, chances are the person doing the dying is more concerned with the dying part.

Anyway, that is about all I know regarding the body: it’s a tube that does cool things and then dies, often in horrible ways. The amount of time allotted for doing cool things is sometimes quite short and sometimes quite long. If we take care of this tube―eat right and exercise, that kind of thing―we might extend the time the body has to do cool things, but I’ve known too many people who ate well and exercised regularly and yet died young to think that we have all that much control over the fate of this tube. 

So eat well and exercise regularly, not because it will keep you alive longer but because, for most of us, it will make the life you have better for as long as you have it, which, even when it is long, isn’t really all that long. 

Think about that for a moment. Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but chances are, you and your kids won’t make it past 120. Given the grand scheme of things, your life is little more than a blip on the cosmic screen, and yet it is such a precious blip. That is the story you have to teach your children regarding the body ― it is precious.

This is what I want children to know about their bodies: they are wondrous tubes capable of doing magnificent things, if well maintained and treated with respect. Because this is the message I want them to learn, I do my best to avoid telling them stories that degrade their body or the bodies of others, and I do my best to find stories that tell them to honor the body and speak to how best to treat it.

As you tell your child stories about the preciousness of their bodies, you will naturally be inclinded to tell them about the preciousness of other bodies as well, human and otherwise. There are lots of precious tubes in the universe, and they all deserve our respect and care. 

But before kids can grasp that, they really have to understand that their tube is precious. One way to do this is to celebrate elimination. You know, peeing and pooping. What I do, and what I am encouraging you to do, is make copies of the prayer called “Asher Yatzar” (“The One Who Fashions Humankind”). Adapt the language as you see fit, frame the copies, and place one in every bathroom in your home. (Traditionally, Jews place them outside the bathroom.) Then, train yourself and your children to recite it after peeing and pooping. I realize this might sound strange at first, but I have found reciting prayer to be among the most profound spiritual practices I do every day. Sometimes twice a day. Hallelujah!

Prayer of the Grateful Tube

Blessed are You, Source and Substance of all creation, Who fashions me with wisdom. You bless me with a body of wondrous balance and complexity, a dynamic mix of openings and closings, fills and hollows, that open and close in tune with need and necessity. If openings should close, or that which is closed open improperly, I could not survive. Yet over these I have no control. I owe my very being to their proper functioning, and I am made humble and grateful with this knowing. I honor Your gift by honoring my body and respecting its promise. Blessed are You, Healer of all flesh, Who blesses me with this precious form.

Q: Where did I come from? 

A: You came from the world.

While it is true that we are tubes, it is also true that we are more than tubes. 

Take your lungs, for example. While they do exist inside your tube, and while they are absolutely essential to your survival, they rely on processes that have nothing to do with what goes on inside your body. 

Lungs need oxygen, but they don’t make oxygen. While your body is good at making methane ― and seems to get better at this with age ― nothing in your body makes oxygen. Oxygen is made through photosynthesis, a process that requires trees, plants, and sunlight. If your body needs lungs, and your lungs need oxygen, and oxygen needs trees and sunlight, then trees and sunlight are as essential to your body as your lungs. In fact, if you tell your kids the true story of their bodies, then trees, plants, and sunlight are as much a part of their body as lungs.

Nor does the body end there. Trees need soil and water to survive, and sunlight needs the sun, so the planet Earth and the sun are part of your body as well. For the Earth and sun to be in just the right relationship for photosynthesis to happen and oxygen to be made, they need all the other planets and moons in our solar system to be just where they are, so that gravity will hold the Earth at just the right distance from the sun, so that your tube doesn’t freeze up or melt down. So the whole solar system is your body, no less than your lungs. And the solar system needs the Milky Way galaxy, and the galaxy needs the universe, so if the story of the body is well told, you discover that you are the universe. How’s that for precious?

But I would be remiss if I left off one more thing to do to tell this story, something I have done with hundreds of kids and parents all across the United States. And for that story, you’ll need a big hunk of Play-Doh. Here’s what to do:

Roll the dough into a big ball. This is Earth. With the help of your kids, pull mountains, rivers, trees, and even people up from the earth. Don’t pull them off and then stick them back on ― that’s not how things happened. The Earth grew people the way a peach tree grows peaches: organically. Fill planet Play-Doh with as much life as you can imagine, and talk to your kids about how people grow on the tree of life, like buds grow on a branch.

This is the story you are telling your children: Your precious tube is part of a larger system called planet Earth, which itself is part of an even larger system called the universe. The earth grew you the same way it grows trees and bumblebees and fireflies ― and for the same reason: life is always experimenting with ways to be alive. You are one of those ways.

Nothing separates you from the rest of life. We are all part of the body of the whole universe. But we have something that some parts of life don’t have, and something that some other parts do have but not as much as we have. And that is the ability to know the story and the moral of the story. 

Dogs and cats are cute and smart and precious like you, but they don’t know the whole story. The more of the story you know, the more responsible you are for caring for life. And since you know the whole story, you are responsible for caring for the whole of life. 

This is where you insert your values about respecting life, living lightly, etc. This is where you might teach your children (and yourself) to garden, compost, recycle, and help the ASPCA rescue and care for animals. The specifics are up to you. Different people have different values. But the story is universal. 

Q: Where am I going? 

A: There is nowhere to go.

What happens when I die?  That is really what we are asking when we ask, Where am I going? Your answer to Where am I going? depends on your answer to Where did I come from? (and I explain this in my book). But if you are with me so far, try this:

Give your child a length of rope about eight inches long. Have her tie a knot in the rope, and then ask her to describe the knot: How big is it? How tight or loose is it? That kind of thing. Once your child has described the knot, ask about the relationship between knot and rope. Is the knot other than the rope? Could the knot exist without the rope?

Your child will realize that the knot is simply an expression of the rope ― the rope in a certain shape ― and not something other than the rope. 

Now let’s name the knot. If there has been a death in your family ― a grandparent, a pet, etc. ― name the knot after the deceased. When I do this exercise with kids, I name my knot Fanny, after my mom’s mom. 

Having named the first knot, have your child tie a second knot on the rope. Give this knot your child’s name. Compare the two knots. They are not the same. One is a bit older than the other; one may be a bit tighter or looser than the other; one is in one place on the rope and the other in another place. And yet they are both the same rope and nothing other than the rope. 

Now talk about the rope as God, reality, or nature. Imagine that the rope is all there is, and everything is a knot of the rope. You are teaching that God, reality, and nature manifest in many forms, each unique and distinct from the others, yet none other than or separate from God, reality, or nature itself.

This is a story about death, so it is time to mark the passing of our first knot ― Fanny, in my case. Untie the original knot; Fanny has died. But where did she go? Sure, her shape is gone, but is the rope any more or less? Is the rope that was Fanny missing? Is the Rami knot any less connected to Fanny now that the knot we called Fanny is gone?

To the extent we love and cherish the knot ― Fanny ― we miss her. We miss her shape, her smell, her stories, and her love. Everything that we remember about her is gone, but the rope that she was still is. And because it still is, the connection with Fanny isn’t broken.

Now tie a third knot in the rope. This isn’t Fanny; there is no way to replicate the Fanny knot perfectly. It is simply another knot, for the rope keeps knotting the way an ocean keeps waving.

The reason I love this story is that it leads me to an understanding of myself and others that honors our differences without imagining them to be permanent. It allows me to be the precious tube I am, while showing me that I am so much more: I am both knot and rope, wave and ocean, part and whole. This allows your children to honor their uniqueness without becoming attached to it.

Why not be attached? Because people change and ultimately die. Because your children will change and ultimately die. If they are attached to who they were, they may reject who they have become. If they limit their understanding of self to the temporary knot or wave, they miss the greater truth that they are the rope and ocean. They are God ― just not all of God. And so is everything else.

Q: What am I here to do?

A: To open your heart, stretch out your hand, broaden your mind

Stories that answer the question “What am I here to do?” are called heart stories. They are called heart stories because they either open or close your heart. When your heart opens, compassion arises. When compassion arises, you naturally reach out to be of service to others. And when you are of service to others, you get to know them and expand your mind. 

Another way to say this is that there are only two kinds of heart stories: those that engender love and those that engender fear. Don’t mistake love for romance or fear for being scared. There is nothing wrong with either, but the love I’m talking about makes you curious about life and courageous when living it, while the fear I’m talking about constricts the heart and alienates you from life.

When I talk about stories that perpetuate fear, this is the kind of story I have in mind. We all carry these “othering” stories. They may be about Jews, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Muslims, Christians, homosexuals, women, or any number of people we might fear. We tell othering stories to keep the other at bay. 

So what kind of stories are you going to tell your kids? Are they chosen, while everyone else comes up with the silver medal at best? Are they saved, while billions of others are going to burn for all eternity in hell? Are they true believers, sworn to defend the faith by slaughtering the infidel? Are they of a higher caste, while others are lower or perhaps so low as to be beneath caste and hence untouchable? Should they fear black people, white people, Puerto Ricans? These are all constricting, fear-based stories we were told and may well tell our children, even without realizing it. Stories told long enough cease to be stories and become facts. 

Take the othering of fat people. Were you born with an innate dislike for fat people? Or did you learn this, growing up? And if you are fat, do you hate yourself for being fat? I spent much of my youth in fat camps, and all of my life fighting my weight. I can tell you the only thing fat kids hated more than even fatter kids was themselves. You aren’t born hating yourself. You learn that.

This is true of all othering stories, even ones in which the other is you. You have to hear them over and over and over again until they are true, simply because they are ubiquitous. 

So again, what kinds of stories are you telling yourself and your children? Do they expand or contract the heart? 

Heart-opening and heart-closing stories depend on your worldview: do you believe in a zero-sum world or a nonzero-sum world? A zero-sum worldview sees the world as a fixed pie, with ever more people competing over ever-smaller slices. If you want more, others will have to get less. You can’t make the pie bigger; you can only make other people’s slices smaller. 

A nonzero-sum worldview imagines a pie that grows, where the success of one isn’t dependent upon the failure of another. Before we go into this, let me tell you what nonzero-sum is not. Nonzero-sum isn’t about sameness or a one-size-fits-all policy of imposed equality. There are winners and losers in the nonzero-sum world, just as there are winners and losers in the zero-sum world. The difference is that in the zero-sum world, the winners determine the losers, while in nonzero-sum world, the losers lose all by themselves.

There is a wonderful story about heaven and hell that comes in many versions, depending on which religious tradition tells it. The essence of the story is this: 

A great sage is about to die and asks God to show him heaven and hell. God agrees and allows the sage to peer into the depths of hell. There, he sees a glorious banquet. Everyone is seated at the table, which is six feet wide and infinitely long. The table is heaped with the finest foods and everyone is encouraged to eat as much as he wishes. The only requirement is that everyone uses her knife, fork, and spoon, each of which is also six feet long. Give the length of one’s arm in relation to the utensils, and hence the impossibility of feeding oneself, the feasting folks in hell are starving.

The sage then is shown the fate of those bound for heaven. Here he sees the same banquet with the same requirement. But in heaven, people have learned to feed one another, so all are fed and none go hungry.

The suffering of hell, the suffering of the zero-sum world, is not imposed by others but by oneself. When we overcome the selfishness of zero-sum hell, we create the joy of nonzero-sum heaven.

Q: Why? 

A: Because.

I once heard a grieving mom respond patiently to her seven-year-old daughter’s question, “Why did Daddy die in the car crash?” with “It wasn’t his fault. Your dad was a good driver, but the other man had been drinking. He was drunk and couldn’t drive and shouldn’t have been driving. He lost control of his car and crossed into Daddy’s lane and they crashed.”

“But why?” her daughter asked again. She wasn’t asking for the cause-and-effect answer; she was asking for the spiritual answer, the answer that would bring meaning to her life experience.

You might respond to this question with a story titled “It God’s Will,” and hope that story provides an answer. But it only begs another question: “Why is it God’s will?” You might tell a story of karma, that in a past life Daddy caused an accident that cost another person’s life, and so Daddy had to pay for that mistake with his life. But this, too, leads to further questioning: “Why should my daddy pay for a mistake in this life that some other person’s daddy made in another life?”

The point is there are some questions that cannot be answered, and we shouldn’t try to answer them. We have to learn to live with not knowing. I want to teach you a Hebrew phrase that I have found extraordinarily helpful in my quest to understand the purpose and meaning of life: Lama? Kakha. Lama is the Hebrew equivalent of the English word “why.” Kakha is Hebrew for “it just is.” “Lama? Kakha” means that things simply are the way they are, and asking why is often irrelevant. “Lama? Kakha” puts an end to endless questioning.

Lama? Kakha. Why? Because. Because reality is reality, and we can’t always understand why, and so we have to be humble and learn to live without final answers.

Another way of asking why is to ask, “What is the purpose of life?” 

Do you believe life has a purpose? If so, what is it? You need to know for yourself so you can share it with your children. 

Some people tell the story, “The Purpose of Life Is to Get into Heaven,” and they will link this story to the story of their religion, so they can provide their children with a way to fulfill life’s purpose and get into heaven.

Other people tell the story, “The Purpose of Life Is to Learn, and You Will Keep Coming Back to Life until You Learn What You are Supposed to Learn.” If this is your story, you should have an answer to the follow-up question, “What am I supposed to learn?” If you have an answer for that, and you share it, your child will have no need to live on to learn it, so be careful how you phrase this.

When I’m asked, “What is the purpose of life?” I say this: “Life has no purpose; life is purpose.” When you have something, the something you have is other than you. I have a computer, but the computer isn’t me. I have an idea, but the idea isn’t me. What I have is other than who I am. But I don’t have life, because there is no me without life. I am life; life is me. There is nothing extra to life. Life doesn’t have a purpose; life is purpose. You don’t have to find something extra other than life; you only have to live life rightly with curiosity, courage, and compassion. When you do, your heart will open and you will be filled with an ever-increasing capacity to love and be loved. 

You are not here to win something, or earn something, or to escape to some other dimension. You are here to live and live well. 

When I think of the question Why? I often think of Buckminster Fuller. Born in 1895 (he died in 1983), Bucky was an inventor, a designer, a poet, an author, and a thinker of the first rank. But none of this matters to the question, Why? What does matter is this: 

There came a time in Bucky’s life when he wanted to commit suicide. His first child, Alexandra, had died from complications arising from polio and spinal meningitis. Years later, he was broke, out of work, and a new father of a second child. He was, as he put it, a “throwaway individual.” But then he had a realization: that his desire for suicide was fundamentally selfish. He was thinking only of himself and how being dead would free him from the suffering of being alive. Suddenly, it dawned on him that being born human meant being born with the capacity to investigate the world and perhaps find something of value to others, which if he died, would never be found. He chose to live his life as an experiment for the good of others. 

What Bucky realized is this: you have a unique inventory of life experiences, and from that inventory you can discover truths that can be of service to others. If you live for yourself only, or if you live with an eye to the day when you no longer live, you will ignore the value of your experience and make no effort to bring your experience to bear in the uplifting of the world. But when you live as Bucky says you should live, the answer to the question “Why are you here?” is clear: to make life better for your having lived it.

Let’s put Bucky together with Lama? Kakha: “Why was I born?” There is no why; there is only the fact that you are here. “Why do I suffer?” There is no why; there is only the fact of suffering. Don’t ask “Why?” ask “What shall I do with the situation in which I find myself?” And here the answer is simple: You are an experiment; you are a way life explores living. Live your life as an experiment, and see what you can learn about living well, taking care of self and others. And then share what you learn with others. This is why you are here.


Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more.

His newest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art: Shattering the Illusion of Control and Falling into Grace with Twelve-Step Spirituality.

He has this to say about religion: “To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence.”

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