What we truly seek is hidden within us, although we may have to travel far into the world and face many other questions before we learn that.
An old idea suggests that each person’s life is a question being asked of the world. Each life is a specific question that isn’t completely answered until a person’s last breath goes out. Regardless of the condition of the outer world, the old idea was to enter the question of one’s life fully and become the living answer.
It’s like the story of the 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 wit. Now that his time had come, his students gathered 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 do 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 his failing breath Zushya replied, “I am not afraid that God will ask me why I was not more like Abraham or 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 final question has been told many times and has travelled all over the world. Although a simple tale, it takes up big questions about life and death. It strongly suggests that at the time of our death the original question of our life returns. The dreaded day of judgment and the final exam turns out to have but a single question that involves the specifics of one’s life rather than generalities of either religion or philosophy.
In seeking to find “the meaning of life,” many people miss the finer point. Since each life is unique, the essential question might be: What is the meaning in my life? Saint or sinner, rabbi or banker, rich or poor, there will be but one thing in question when the time for living comes to an end. Did you become yourself? Have you lived the life intended for you or did you substitute some one 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 students not to some divinity outside themselves, but toward the seeds of the divine 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; the god-given gifts and talents are seeds of the divine planted in each soul before each person is born. In the end, it turns out that the divine is most interested in what we do with the unique gifts and precise challenges we each are given. That is what was meant by the old idea that “inside people is where god learns.” When people become 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. He kept giving from the gifts given to him, and the tale of facing god’s question has carried his name throughout the world. The most revered figures in all the wisdom traditions became memorable because they were uniquely themselves. Their behavior was uncommon, exceptional; 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. Each had to awaken to a vision already in them so that the tale of their life could become instructive to others.
One of the open secrets of life on earth is that the answer to life’s burning question has been seeded within one’s soul to begin with. What we truly seek is hidden within us, although we may have to travel far into the world and face many other questions before we learn that. That’s the final lesson, the last word, and the essential wisdom that the good rabbi was honest enough to communicate with his final breath.
It is easy to forget that the divine is most interested in the spark of the eternal already placed within each soul. Call it the inner spirit, the soul’s genius or the deep self. It has many names, but each refers to the deeper, wiser self that waits to be discovered throughout our lives.
Wisdom, like love, depends upon the specifics of a person and of the situation they are in. What is wise for one person can be foolish for another. The wise old woman or wise old man that dwells in the soul already knows the way our lives are aimed and styled and inclined to go. Amidst rapid changes and increasing uncertainties, the older, wiser parts of the soul try to catch up to us at each critical juncture in our lives. Whether fate deals us a tragedy or a great awakening, the question being asked is whether we will become a bigger or a smaller person. In all cases, the wisest thing is to become more fully one’s unique self.
Note: Last fall the Jung Society brought Michael Meade to Salt Lake City for a lecture and workshop. CATALYST was present to witness this renowned storyteller, author and scholar of mythology, anthropology and psychology. He combines street-savvy perceptiveness and spellbinding interpretations of ancient myths with a deep knowledge of cross-cultural rituals, connecting them to the stories we are living today. Meade returns to Salt Lake City this month to talk about the light inside dark times, and to offer a workshop on “the soul of change.” See calendar, page 26, for more information.
Michael Meade is the author of several books including Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of The Soul upon which this article is based; editor, with James Hillman and Robert Bly, of Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart; and editor of Crossroads: A Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage. Meade is founder of a nonprofit network of artists, activists and community builders that encourages greater understanding between diverse peoples. For more information visit www.mosaicvoices.org.