When I look at the one-word prompt for today's #BlogElul challenge, I find myself humming an old Doris Day tune: "When I was just a little girl I asked my mother, 'What will I be? Will I be pretty, will I be rich?' Here's what she said to me" 'Que sera, sera -- whatever will be, will be -- the future's not ours to see -- que sera, sera."
Oy. I mean, it's a catchy song, but it's not exactly my theology.
Well: it's true that the future's not ours to see, generally speaking. And it's true that things unfold sometimes not as we might wish, but in a way that's shaped by a vast and interconnected web of events and choices. Our actions and choices shape our futures. So do the actions and choices of those around us, and those who came before us.
But I'm not sure I want to blithely accept that "whatever will be, will be." Or at least: I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that I don't have any agency. I can't control what will be, but I have power over my own reactions. I can choose how I want to be in the world.
I want to be thoughtful. I want to be compassionate and kind. I want to be whole-hearted. I want to be mindful of others and of others' needs. I want to be thankful. I want to live with what my teachers call "prayerful consciousness," infusing my every moment with awareness of something greater than myself.
None of those things changes what will be. If our son is going to have a tantrum in the middle of a beautiful walk by the reservoir, and plunk himself down and refuse to walk any further, then that's what he's going to do, no matter how mindful I'm aiming to be. Or -- raising the stakes substantially -- if, God forbid, someone I love were to fall ill, my striving to be all of those things wouldn't change their diagnosis. If, God forbid, I myself were to be diagnosed with something fearsome, my striving to be all of those things wouldn't change my diagnosis either. But if I can try to be kind and whole-hearted and thankful, to be prayerful, to be aware of God's presence in my life, then I can bring those things into whatever will be. Into the sweet, and into the bitter. I can't necessarily shape what will be, but I can try to shape who I will be.
During the Days of Awe we'll pray the prayer called Unetaneh Tokef, which asks the questions: in the coming year, who will live, and who will die? Who by fire, and who by water? (And so on. Here's a post I wrote about that prayer back in 2005: Every day I write the book.) The refrain of that prayer teaches that tefilah, u-teshuvah, u-tzedakah, ma'avirin et-roa ha-g'zeirah -- "Prayer, repentance / turning-toward-Oneness, and righteously giving to others in need, can sweeten the harshness of the decree." I'm always struck by the fact that the prayer doesn't make the audacious claim that prayer, repentance, and tzedakah can change what will be. But they can sweeten what will be.
We can't control the future. But we have control over how we respond to the future we're given. If I can respond with prayer, with teshuvah, with tzedakah, then I can sweeten my experience of my life -- and in a certain way, that is changing what will be. It's an epistemological change (a change in what I experience), even if it isn't an ontological one (a change in the objective reality of what is.) What will be, will be. But who will I be, in response to whatever is? That's one of my big questions as we move through Elul: who is it, exactly, that I intend to be?