We're not afraid of dying; we're afraid of living, the rabbi said. I've heard many sermons since that one, delivered several years ago on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day. But I often recall that line, and its implicit challenge, which echoes throughout the holiday: Can we seize our potential, right here, right now, before it's too late?
Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement," asks Jews to take a day to take stock. It's the ultimate reckoning—we're meant to consider our countless transgressions before God and each other and ask for another chance, specifically, another year, to get things right. The liturgy makes this quite literal. We beg forgiveness, beating our chests for a litany of sins that we, either as individuals or as a community, may have committed, and ask God to seal our names in the "Book of Life," granting us healthy and happy days in the coming year (which, according to the Hebrew calendar, is the year 5773). Prayer, repentance, and acts of justice, it's said, improve one's fate.
To help attain a spiritual state, we abstain from physical comforts—food and drink (including water), sexual relations, leather shoes, perfume, and bathing. Some people even wear the traditional white cloak that's used for burial. These practices are meant to mimic dying, because there's nothing quite like death to narrow one's focus on the urgency of life. Combine that with the elation of enduring the day's trials for a fresh meal, and a clean slate, and you can see why Yom Kippur is also considered the most joyful of the Jewish holidays. Like the joy of recovering health after sickness, the process aims to restore one's appreciation for living.
However, you need not observe Yom Kippur to experience a sense of renewal. Many of the holiday's themes can be universally applied to refocus and renew your life. We all fall victim to the uniquely human talent for adaptation, getting stuck in our lives, for better or for worse. During Yom Kippur, the rabbis sound a shofar, a ram's horn, which is meant to serve as a communal wake-up call toward change. But each of us can craft our own rituals to uproot ourselves from a rut and bolster well-being. Below, some exercises to try, at any time of year:
Take a day off: Just as our bodies require rest, so too do our minds. That's especially true in today's ultra-wired world, where we're juggling myriad tasks and schedules. In his book, Hamlet's Blackberry, former Washington Post reporter William Powers writes about the need to disconnect to reconnect. "Humans love to journey outward. The connective impulse is central to who we are. But it's the return trip, back to the self and the life around us, that gives our screen time value and meaning." Powers' family has instituted a weekly Internet sabbath, unplugging for the weekend, and he encourages others to create "Walden zones," designated screen-free spaces at home that reference Henry David Thoreau's sojourn at Walden Pond. Consider using the time to meditate, which has been associated with lowering blood pressure, lengthening attention spans, and reducing stress.
Ask for forgiveness. When it comes to forgiveness, we often think about letting go of grudges against those who have wronged us. And, to be sure, letting go of that negativity releases an enormous burden and provides healing. But asking others for forgiveness, even if we're not sure whether or how we may have hurt them, is another important gesture. We discover ways we may have been insensitive, paving the way for a deeper, and more honest relationship. And we benefit from the insight of others as we aim to improve ourselves.
Join a community. "The need to belong is a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation," according to research by Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University. Studies also show that people with strong social bonds are less vulnerable to stress and sickness, and, if they do fall ill, are more resilient. Conversely, loneliness can predict disastrous consequences. In a recent study of more than 1,600 seniors, University of California researchers linked loneliness to declining health and even death. Among the 43 percent of adults who reported feeling lonely during the six-year study, 23 percent had died, compared with the 14 percent who weren't lonely.
Whether it's having a regular coffee date with a friend or joining a reading group, consider building your social bonds to boost your spirits.
Do good works. It doesn't matter if you're organizing a winter coat drive or visiting the elderly, the act of giving can transform us. "When we give, it's likely that we turn off the fight-or-flight response," writes Stephen Post in Why Good Things Happen to Good People. "Giving pushes aside the brooding negative emotions, like rage and spite and envy, that clearly contribute to stress-induced psychological and physical illness," says Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York. It also makes us happier, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California-Riverside. Giving can give our lives meaning and purpose, boost self-esteem, and divert us from focusing too much on ourselves. So, next time you see someone's parking meter about to expire, why not toss in a few coins?
Face death to more fully face life. "It is crucial to be mindful of death—to contemplate that you will not remain long in life," writes the Dalai Lama in Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life. If you are not aware of death, you will fail to take advantage of this special human life that you have already attained." Death clarifies the meaning of life. Consider, for example, Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, books that captured pivotal life lessons in the face of death and transfixed legions of readers. Why? We want to know that, when our time comes, we will have lived up to our lives. It was the question posed by my rabbi at that sermon so many years ago and one articulated beautifully by Tim McGraw, the country singer, in his "Live Like You Were Dying," a song about his friend's response to terminal illness. "I went skydiving. I went Rocky Mountain climbing ... I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying. And he said someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying ... like tomorrow was a gift, and you got eternity to think about what do with it. What should you do with it? What can I do with it? What would I do with it?"
McGraw couldn't have articulated a more perfect Yom Kippur sermon.
Updated on 9/26/2012: In the last sentence of this story, the word "written" was changed to "articulated."