I can't think of any natural reason why we should assume that life could be anything other than nasty, brutish and short. So, that leads me to believe that there must be an "unnatural" reason.
Do you ever find yourself in one of those periods of life when pressing questions seem to hound you at every turn? When it seems that the mysteries of the universe suddenly can't go unanswered another day and they stick in your craw and the end result is that there are a lot of angry honking drivers behind you because you're so distracted thinking about them that you fail to notice the traffic light change. These are some of the great mysteries that have occupied my thoughts lately:
Why do salmon continue to swim to their death at the spawning grounds generation after generation. Isn't there some little salmon, somewhere, who says - "No. I've seen them head that way and they never come back. Not happening to me."?
Why does my four-year-old have to dump out the entire container of socks in order to find the single pair that he finds suitable to wear. And what makes that particular pair particularly suitable?
What do I share in common with a secular humanist that we both find the idea of giving a grief-numbing drug to a parent who lost their child two minutes ago immoral?
Why are there toothbrushes scattered the length of my hallway this morning?
Why do are we so shocked and disappointed when life is nasty, brutish and short?
Why do we expect it to be any other way?
That last set of questions has been particularly on my mind.
I'm lucky to live in a community that holds nothing back when it comes to offering support to a fellow Jew in distress. When a Jewish family showed up in town seeking specialized treatment for their daughter who is comatose after drowning, I joined in the community effort to help in whatever small way I could. Having gotten to know the sweet baby's mom has been an experience that is beyond words. She is living a nightmare, and I wouldn't fault her for staying curled up in bed and crying day and night. But instead she seems tireless in her quest to see a miraculous healing for her daughter. Rather than the community helping her, it seems like she's taken it upon herself to help the community: to call for challah bakes and tehillim gatherings and amen parties to bring everyone together and to give opportunities to celebrate life, to praise G-d for all the goodness He creates, and to commit to making ourselves better people.
I've heard and read many fascinating things lately on the evolution of cultures and species and psyches. That we are primed for dominance hierarchies because nature has continued to select for it for eons. That, like other mammals, we have built-in neurological play circuits that make us seek the push and pull of victory and defeat that is the cycle of healthy interaction. That we are pattern-seeking creatures because nailing down patterns helps increase our chance of survival.
But it dawned on me last week, as I was thinking about these parents' relentless hope for a better future for their comatose daughter, that I can't think of an evolutionary explanation for why humans should believe that the world will one day be better.
The assumption that life should be pleasant, safe, healthy or long is completely irrational.
Think about it: is there any other living thing that decries the cosmic injustice of their kids dying young? Any other living thing that looks at the common maladies of it's species and says, "I'm going to find a solution to that problem because we should not have to suffer from this"? We are not the only problem-solving creature, but what other creature goes beyond just solving-a-problem-in-the-moment and instead dreams and works for the removal of that problem from the experience of existence?
This expectation that the world should be moving towards a more perfect version of itself seems so uniquely human and so outside the boundaries of nature; I mean, really: life has never-ever-in-the-history-of-mankind been perfect, so why is the expectation that it should be buried so deep in our psyches? Where do we get the gall to believe that it can be better tomorrow than it was today?
The Talmud says in Avot, "How great is man, created in the image of G-d!" As I sit here looking at it, it seems to me that if you boil a man down to find the essence of g-dliness in him, where you'll find it is in his expectation of goodness and perfection.
Every refusal to be content with the state of life in it's pain and vulnerability and brevity...
Every effort to mitigate not just the experience but the causes of suffering...
Every word of hope, and anticipation of good uttered...
Every conscious choice to become better-than-yesterday's version of yourself...
Every baby brought into the world and invested with all of our confidence in a future that is a shade brighter than where we stand now...
Every child sustained by a parent's noncompliance with the law of nature that says that everything tends towards decay...
Maybe this is what it means to be truely human. Maybe this is what it means to be b'tzelem elokim - in the image of G-d.
Please take a moment to say a prayer, or do a good deed, or - at the very least - think a hopeful thought for the healing of Chaya Liel bat Tali.