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By Mira Sucharov

Last summer, sadly, turned out to be a season of funerals. I have been lucky, perhaps, not to have had very many to attend in my lifetime, possibly owing to a combination of my grandparents’ birth order and their hearty dispositions and not living in my hometown and sheer fate, I guess. But two sudden deaths in two weeks meant that my thoughts during the month I turned thirty-seven were largely consumed with death 

At the same time, I found myself experiencing what I can only describe as restlessness. As I listened to the rabbi’s opening words during one of the services, where he spoke of needing to allow the deceased to “rest,” thus enabling us to begin the process of acceptance, I began to contemplate the relationship between restlessness, stillness and human finitude.

 There are some obvious links, of course. We tend to use the rhetorical device about life being too short for -- fill in the blank – maintaining unhealthy friendships, holding grudges, drinking bad coffee, and so on. But now I’ve been meditating on the question of how to achieve contentment without falling into complacency. How are we to be happy with what we have – in other words, how do attain the elusive goals of stillness and satisfaction – and still enable ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of others: in short, to strive for more?
Another rabbi spoke of the importance of filling one’s life with the sacredness of everyday things: hugs, baking, gardening, doting on family and friends, conducting oneself with professional integrity. It isn’t the quantity of these acts by which a life is measured, he said, but the quality of intention brought to bear during one’s days on earth.
Wise words, but were it so easy. Restlessness seems a perennial feature of the modern human condition. I stress modern since with the relative material affluence and the ability to transfer knowledge that came with modernity also came a plethora of choice. Fast-forward to the collective lifetimes of this paper’s readership and we find the erosion of strictly-defined gender roles and ethnic communities. Suddenly we are “free to be you and me,” in the words of Marlo Thomas, creator of my favourite record as a child, an album that now holds pride of place in my children’s CD collection.
But, to be viscerally ungrammatical for the moment, who is me? How do we access our authentic self so we can move from restlessness to stillness, and only then, to possible change – including personal evolution as well as moving beyond our immediate needs into the realm of tikkun olam?
There is almost nothing that induces more stillness than watching a body being lowered into the earth. As we confront the finality of death, we are still. But only for a moment, since immediately our thoughts turn to how we – as mourners and as supporters of the bereaved – will function without that person or will help his or her loved ones to bear their grief. Then, our thoughts might turn to how we can make the most of our lives. And it is this tension – the search for meaning amidst striving for contentment – that I find confounding.
Most would probably agree that being restless for signifiers of wealth is a sign of contemporary malaise that’s best overcome. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” stated a popular 1980s bumper sticker. But when the restlessness involves choices that are social or spiritual rather than material, how do we know when that process of searching is actually tapping into our authentic self, and when it is distracting from what would otherwise be simple contentment? How do we know when that striving is a red herring, leading us into the trap of unrequited longing?
During the high holidays and festivals we were encouraged to take stock of our individual and communal lives in the context of the universal. One rabbi friend, with whom I grew up, once described this period in the Jewish year as “awesome.” I was struck by his use of adjective. Though the period is known as the Days of Awe, I believe he was subtly recasting a term that in our 1980s childhood evoked teenagers in shopping malls chasing Sony Walkmans and Ray Ban sunglasses. For this friend, the labels of consumption that had marked our youth had given way to something else. He, apparently, had achieved the stillness necessary to follow a different path.
Spiritual guides tell us that restlessness must give way to stillness before we can hear ourselves, know “who is me,” and discover our authenticity. If there is some cosmic reason for our finitude, perhaps this is it. Life is too short not to hear our own voice. But I’m still trying to listen, even as I speak.
Former Winnipegger Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University
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