Commandment #6: How to make your life longer

I was sad the day I got my driver’s license. By all accounts, it should have been a great day, a happy day. But I distinctly remember my 16-year-old self holding that glossy rectangle piece of plastic in my hands and thinking:

“Oh no. It’s happening. I’m getting older. Never again can I look forward to the day I get my license…that day is now behind me, forever, squarely in the rear-view mirror.”

And while I’m just trashing beloved adolescent celebratory occasions, let me say that I’ve always hated birthdays, too. Birthdays have always struck me as kind of…depressing, an annual reminder of the limits of human life, a reminder that you’re going to die, and, congratulations, you’re now a little closer to that certainty.

I guess you could say that as a kid I was hyper-aware of the shortness of life, how quickly it all passes by in a flash.

Now, saying this out loud, I realize I may have been an unusually morbid kid. But I think all of us are forced to confront the difficult truth of the cliche that “time flies.” It really does.

And if you’ve just started to realize this grim reality, I’ve got bad news for you. It really, truly only gets worse. As you get to the age of about 30, you begin to experience the cruel phenomenon that the older you get, the more time flies by even faster. (And that’s not just anecdotal, by the way, neuroscientists have measured this using a method called temporal bisection tasking.) 

And so a question I’ve been fascinated by for some time is — does it have to be this way? Are we destined to have life pass us by at breakneck and increasing speed? Or…is there a way we might slow down time and make our lives feel longer?

Well, stick with me. I’m going to take you in a surprising direction, but I promise we’ll get back to the question of how to slow down our lives.

The sixth of the Ten Commandments. It’s…a biggie: “Do not murder.” 

At the risk of presumptuousness, I think I speak for the vast majority of humankind when I say, yes, refrain from murdering other humans. I know we live in a divided society, but I’d like to think we can all get behind that one. 

And certainly the basic understanding of this commandment is just that, to not murder people. But many Jewish thinkers are quick to expand that commandment beyond the simplest, most literal explanation. 

“Do not murder” isn’t just about literally striking the blow or pulling the trigger that ends someone’s life. 

The 12th-century Spanish commentator, Avraham Ibn Ezra, for example, says something unexpected. He clarifies that “Do not murder” also includes things like intentionally giving someone bad advice that could end up killing them. 

Hm. Interesting. But some go even further than that in expanding the scope of this commandment, and to me, that’s where this gets really interesting, and really relevant, to all of us non-habitual-murderers.

There’s this really out there, really striking line in the Talmud, and it goes like this: “Anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though that person spilled blood.”

Embarrassing someone in front of other people — that, says the Talmud, is tantamount to killing them. At first blush that seems kind of ridiculous, almost inflammatory, but here’s what I take from it: “Do not murder” is about not taking a life. But…what is life? 

Life, on one level, is about whether someone has a pulse, yes. But life is more than whether someone is technically, medically alive. Life is also about what that life is like. 

In the Talmud’s case, when you embarrass someone in public, you’re changing what that life is like…for the worse. You’re diminishing their social standing. And we all know that social esteem is part and parcel of what it means to be alive. A life without social connection — which happens when you lose social esteem — isn’t really a life at all, at least at that moment.

In other words, life is about more than the quantity of moments that we are able to string together. Life is about the quality of those moments.

We can see this with our own eyes. We’ve seen people who’ve died tragically young, but who have packed in more “life” in 20 short years than others do in 80 long years. The 19th-century Hasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk said it best: “Of course I could revive the dead, but I find reviving the living much more difficult.”

Okay, okay…very nice. But I promised to tell you how to make your life longer. What happened to that!? 

Well, I think that this very subtle distinction — that living is about the quality of our lives, as opposed to just the quantity of our lives — contains the answer.

I want to illustrate that to you with a story. My wife and I have a three-year-old, Kira, and…I’m not particularly enjoying bed-time with Kira these days. 

She always makes a whole ordeal about which pajamas she wants. And she throws a tantrum when I try to brush the knots out of her hair. It’s not a pleasant routine. But sometimes, when I catch myself, when I’m self-aware enough, I do something called “the last time” meditation. 

The Last Time meditation begins with a startling thought: Every single thing that you do in your life, there will be a “last time” that you do that thing. Everything.

There will be a last time you take a shower. A last time you go for a walk. A last time you get on an airplane. A last time you speak to your mother. A last time you eat that slice of pizza…We know this intellectually, but as a matter of experience, we forget this.

“The last time” meditation is about experiencing a moment as if it were the last time — and it totally changes the quality of what it is you’re doing at that moment. 

You know, the day is coming — very, very soon — when it will be the last time that I put Kira to bed. In just a few years, she’ll put herself to bed. And in a blink of an eye, she’ll be out of our house. 

And I know — I just know —that one day, I’ll be wishing I could put her to bed just one more time. I’ll give anything to be on the receiving end of another tantrum. 

When I can remember that during bedtime, well, the quality of that bedtime moment is different. I start to pay attention. I take it all in. Her cute little face…even as she’s crying. How she feels in my arms…even as she’s whining. The richness and the fullness of that experience is completely transformed. The quality is totally different.

Do you want to know why life feels like it’s going by so fast? Because there are so many of these seemingly mundane, difficult, annoying things to “get through” in life. When we try to “get through,” we get just that. The moments are lost.

But if we can shift our attitude to those mundane and difficult moments, if we can get present, bring our full attention to them…then the quality of those moments begins to shift. They become more rich. More intense. More beautiful. And they don’t pass us by as quickly.

Lo tirtzach, Do not murder, is one of the Big Ten foundational principles for obvious reasons — a society in which life is not valued isn’t much of a society at all. But life means so much more than being literally dead or alive. It’s about being spiritually, emotionally, psychologically alive, too. 

Choose life, the Torah says. Uvacharta va’chaim. Yes, that means to protect the quantity of your life and those of others. To eat healthy food and to exercise, and certainly not to text while driving. 

But it means more than that, too. It means to choose the quality of life as well. And to share it, as much as possible, with others. To pay attention. To resist losing ourselves in the fast-paced, constantly evolving, ever-hectic world.

And to never, ever, ever seek to “kill” time and “just get through” any moment, no matter how difficult — but rather to cherish time as the most precious resource we have. When we approach time that way, I guarantee you will have more of it.

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