This piece was originally written for a class.
During my high school years, YOLO became really popular. The idea of “You Only Live Once” is a common one while you’re young with few obligations. But we didn’t actually practice what we preached. We planned for college and the future as we were encouraged to. And we never really thought about what YOLO meant. Everything changed for me in this regard in November of 2015 during my first semester of college when I was diagnosed with my chronic autoimmune condition. Suddenly, life became divided into “before” and “after.”
I never know what my health is going to look like in a year, a month, or even tomorrow, so I try to focus on enjoying the time I have when I feel healthy. And this brings me to my love of Kohelet, known to the gentile world as Ecclesiastes: Many people will argue that Kohelet is one of the most depressing books of the Tanakh. It talks a lot about death and the futility of all that we will do on earth. But Kohelet is actually incredibly encouraging to me in three ways:
First, in recognizing the limited time that we have “under the sun,” Kohelet encourages us as the audience to take our moments of enjoyment into our own hands and treat them as a gift from God.
Second, Kohelet states that we cannot change the world in any substantial way. “One generation comes, another generation goes, but the earth remains the same into eternity.” We cannot make all that much of a difference in our world. In a positive direction, this may seem discouraging, but in terms of mistakes or choices that we make, we can also be sure that those mistakes will be forgotten and lost to time shortly after we make them. This gives us permission to make mistakes, to live our lives without constantly being obsessed with the legacy that we are leaving behind.
Lastly, and most importantly in my story, Kohelet, unlike some of the religious dogma that one may see in the internet these days, recognizes that it is impossible to be happy all the time or for all moments to be good. Verses 3:1-3:7 begin with: “A season is set for everything, a time for everything under the heavens,” and the following verses lay out a list of things that there is a season set for. These include slaying, healing, weeping, laughing, seeking, losing, and a few others.
When one is diagnosed with a rare and confusing chronic illness, the future seems uncertain and unbelievably scary. It feels like the opening of Pandora’s box with the endless amount of stress and anxiety that can come forward, and it may feel like the end of the world. So how does Kohelet help us?: First, this book reminds us that there is time for weeping and seeking and all of the complicated and contradictory feelings that one experiences throughout the process of getting a diagnosis and immediately after. Second, while sickness may remind us of our inherent mortality and humanity, this reminder allows us to enjoy every healthy and happy moment as a gift from God or the Universe depending on which one that you personally believe in.
There is another part of the Jewish tradition that has helped me and others with being diagnosed with our illnesses or disabilities: Much of the Torah takes place in the wilderness, also called the desert depending on how you may want to translate the world “bamidbar.” As Rabbi Eliot Kukla argues in a beautiful piece about being diagnosed with a chronic illness as a rabbi, “a chronic illness journey often begins in the wilderness of grief and loss: uncomfortable, unreliable, yet as real a home as any. Only when we accept this wilderness as more than a stopover can we begin to embrace what remains.” The Israelites built a community in the wilderness and learned some very important lessons. There is so much hope left at the bottom of Pandora’s box if we only let ourselves see it and embrace what’s good in any way that we can. Yes, we may miss the days that we were “healthy” and wish that we could be more conventionally productive, but there is so much companionship, meaning, and Godliness in this wilderness. The wilderness, the chronic illness, is not the end of the world. And in many ways, it is just the beginning.