Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – May 23, 1999
Mike Feder: Today we are going to talk about something that’s been in the news for quite some time, but more so for the last few weeks. Dr. Jack Kevorkian was convicted in Michigan, of charges – I think it was “complicity in murder,” or “murder,” he is now residing in jail, and I’m sure he is appealing.
The issue is assisted suicide and suicide; and the question, I think, is, are you the sole owner of your life – can you do just what you like with your own life?
I’ll just start off with this massive topic, by just asking you an almost factual question, in a way: do you think this man belongs in jail where he is right now? Should he have been convicted?
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: What do you think?
Feder: What I think? I think no, I think committed what I would call a victimless crime. He was invited to help somebody else end their life, the man signed a legal document he went and did it, he did not hurt anybody, anyhow, why is he in jail, that’s the way I see it initially, I’m willing to be persuaded – but that’s the way I see it.
Jacobson: Well, I think the focus of our show probably should not so much to be why he is in jail, but the question you are asking me about who’s life is it anyway, and who controls life, because I think it is more of a legal question about how much he was participating, was he a hired gun, alright, lets say the patient themselves pulled the plug; so – from my point of view it’s not so relevant his complicity in what happened, but rather the philosophy of it, the concept it and I’d rather not comment about the legal aspects of his participation. I will say this from the outset: that it’s probably apparent, but we should discuss it. The issue here is his philosophy of being able to assist; you may put a question: of what kind of doctor is he, and would you trust him with your life?
Feder: You don’t trust him with your life, you trust him with your death! I’m not being facetious…
Jacobson: But I think there is an element here of a difference if was a doctor or not, let’s say if was a spouse, if he is a doctor, does he have a higher standard to live up to, because in a sense he is dealing with delicate issues.
The same question is asked about abortion: you know, some doctors refuse to do abortions not because of any religious reason but because they do not want to be involved in taking a life.They feel their job is to heal and to bring life into the world. So, well, so we are dealing here with somewhat of a tangent: I’d like to focus on the actual topic of whose life is it…
Feder: Now, let me take this moment just to say that we do welcome your calls, and our number here at WEVD for your questions and comments about this issue as we proceed today live in the studio is 212-244-1050. And let me just real quickly before we get into the psychological and philosophical…
Feder: The nitty-gritty. To get down to the bottom – is in fact, the one thing about, and there are many things about the legal issues that may be interesting enough, but the one thing that is pertinent in the end is that this man intends obviously to get this over with in the Supreme Court and to see if they make it the law of the land. If it becomes the law of the land, to do what he proposes, it actually does intrude on the deeper issues here, because we’ll all be living in a place where this is something anybody can do at any time, that’s why I bring it up.
Jacobson: Well, I think in that it’s a great opportunity to discuss. Because I think many of these stories, this and similar ones, in a way, illuminate and force us to take another look at our perspective on life, and for that matter, on death. So that’s why I really embrace the topic of this nature. I mean, G-d forbid, I’d rather not have to deal with the topic of this nature and discuss it, but I think often these type of poignant events that hit headlines, force us to look at things that sometimes we are uncomfortable with looking at, because we may be ambiguous or ambivalent about some of these issues.
I think we should go straight to that topic, and I wanted to say something about questions, and I know we’ve been doing discussions on the air and so many people have told me, you know, I would like to hear you discussing the talk but I think that in the climate that we live in a world where so many people have questions and have been silenced – I really would love to see the show evolve to a place where – not just in New York but a place where people feel that you can bring to the table your psychological, your spiritual, your religious and your heretical questions. And a place where – since no questions are off limits – where we really look to people, accepting that invitation enthusiastically.
Feder: This is a place where you won’t be told to shut up and go away. Like you were all your life perhaps.
Jacobson: Correct. Now, to our topic. Go for it.
Feder: Now, here’s something, I remember, because I talked about this once on another radio show I did, I remember reading in the paper a year or two ago, there was this case where a man, who was an elderly man, his wife was dying of terminal cancer, she was in a hospital. He apparently had some sort of conference with her, and they agreed, and he came to the hospital, and he killed her – shot her with a shotgun. It was gruesome, but it was over in a second, and he was able to prove later on that she had asked him to do this, and yet he was arrested for murder. He had lived with this woman for 55 years, and they had a wonderful life and very happy marriage. Near the end, the last couple of months of her life, she begged him to do this. And he said he couldn’t see someone he loved suffering like that. When you think about it, if you – now, I don’t want to put you in a personal situation like that – but, you know, if you saw someone that you loved so much, they are your whole life to you, practically. And they begged you to put them out of their misery, could you do anything like that? He did it, and he was let off by a jury. He was charged but he was let off by a jury of his peers.
Jacobson: Well, I understand. I want to distinguish between the legal system and what’s right or wrong, and what I mean by that again the jurisdiction of our constitution and therefore of the courts, is in some ways limited, because they cannot go into the hearts and souls, particularly religious beliefs. But based on the principles of separation between Church and State. So I’m sure that the Founding Fathers had this dilemma: what do you do when there is a conflict, like why is it illegal to commit suicide? And you mobilize the police force, the fire department, anyone you can to stop the guy from jumping from the bridge. That’s law, and you spend money to prevent him from jumping off the bridge, or from committing suicide in any other way. Clearly, clearly there was some type of appreciation that despite the fact that this nation is built on individual rights, including the right of how to live, there was a line drawn – I would argue that almost anyone, even the most liberal of the Civil Liberties Union would argue there is a line to be drawn. Because at certain times when a person is, for instance, harmful to themselves, does society have a responsibility to stop that harm?
Now, I know that is not the only topic that we will be discussing but I just wanted to broaden the issue, because the more complex we see it is, we see it’s not as simple as just a question of “putting someone out of misery”.
I think the question should be phrased – and I come from a certain perspective, which is Torah perspective, a perspective based on G-d, that life is G-d-given, and I say this unabashedly, for a very particular reason, because I think that is the heart the issue: What is life? What is life? What does it mean to live a life of quality life? Is a paraplegic a life of quality? Is a mentally retarded a life of quality? How do we define life – I think the question starts long before the issue of pain. You know, when someone is in the hospital and they attach tubes, the question is, do you put them out of their misery – I think the question begins the moment they’re born. Because how we see life in the beginning, that’s how we treat it later as well. And I think that’s the question, and I’d like to just, you know, just lay down the perspective of Torah on this issue, because it very clearly states, a very strong opinion on this matter, because you’re dealing here not just with how you deal with pain, but how you deal with life in general, how do we value life. And if a person is unproductive and empty, and feels hopeless and aimless, should anyone stop them from hurting themselves? In other words, where do you draw the line and where do you define it?
The Greeks had a custom (and they actually called the Jews barbaric) in the good old days in Greek time. Their approach, when a child was born handicapped, physically or mentally handicapped, they would kill that child, they would throw them down a mountain. I don’t know whether you’re aware of that.
Feder: There are other societies that did this, too.
Jacobson: Right. And the Jews refused to do that, the Jewish people. And the Greeks considered them barbaric! Why put families and people through such misery of seemingly hopeless life? Today I doubt that the Americans would call that, would agree with the Greeks.
Feder: There are some Americans who would agree.
Jacobson: OK, but I’m saying, that the government doesn’t. Let’s put it this way, the majority doesn’t. But that’s not the issue. The issue is not the consensus. I just wanted to point out how the societies have different views on this matter and I go back to the initial point about life, the idea and the sanctity of life. The sanctity of life. If one accepts that life is given to us, as a gift, by G-d, and it’s not from just from biological evolution, which means that it’s subject to the rules of human beings determining what’s convenient and what’s not convenient to them, but if it’s defined by a G-d that give us life as a gift, there are certain consequences of that. And again, as we’ve often done in the show here- I am not discussing G-d at this point right now, I have to come with that as an axiom, because it’s a perspective, and I don’t know if the issue is to prove it or not, the issue is, let’s present the perspective in a legitimate and respectful way. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective and ultimately, it will come down to what resonates, what sounds best, or a person’s acceptance of some faith…
Feder: So, now, in a way, you are talking about the idea, as you’ve mentioned before, of the soul, that is the thing that sort of unites us.
Jacobson: As soon you say that there is a G-d-given life, that life is a gift, essentially you’re saying that there is a soul, for that gift is the soul within the body in a sense – a body, a corpse has no life, it’s inanimate. But let me define. So G-d gives life, meaning that this touches upon the essence of existence itself. Why is there existence? Do we fully – do we have a full answer to that? And why are some of us dealt certain cards in lives and some of us are dealt others? Can we determine what’s more quality than another? Based on the principle that G-d gives life, you must say that each of us, no matter how we live our lives, no matter what type of health situation, no matter what shortcomings, or positive qualities we have, that is a quality life because or some reason that’s part of the big picture, the purpose, the design that G-d intends for each of us. And to say that someone with blue eyes and blond hair, oh, that’s quality life – someone that’s brunette, is not, you know, I’m using a preposterous example because there you don’t find any type of pain or anything like that. So that type of a scenario comes down to: “Yes, G-d chose these different people to have different opportunities, people given different gifts and different challenges”. Sometimes a challenge is very difficult challenges. Can we explain why some children are born to dysfunctional families that are abusive and orphaned at a young age and suddenly their whole life is shattered and the opportunities that every normal child has are taken away from them? Should that child say to themselves: “life isn’t worth living?” We say: no! This is your challenge and you can overcome it. From a G-d perspective, and let me cite Halacha, the Jewish Law, legal statement: your body does not belong to you – this is the statement – that is why self-mutilation is prohibited in Torah Law, not just suicide, touching your body in any way to mutilate it, to harm it. And the reason given for it is, why is it prohibited?
Because this is not your body, its a gift given to you. And if someone gave you a gift and you return it the way it was given to you in the best way that you can, life is a gift, life is not ours to temper with, life is ours to fulfill our destiny and our calling to be the most productive, constructive… Best citizens, best human beings, most spiritual human beings, however you define these virtues. And with that statement said (I know Mike that you want to get something in, but I just want to finish my initial what’s called, my initial, whatever you call it, initial opening statement just to set the tone)
Jacobson: Based on that principle, that life is not your own, so self-mutilation, suicide, either self-inflicted or with someone’s help, is not our choice. And we – no matter how painful it may seem, when somebody is lying and living in pain, we don’t understand a lot of things in life. And, perhaps tempering with that, may not be the wisest thing for human beings. We are the creatures…We may not understand all the deepest plans and understand what G-d intends. If we do begin tampering – I’d like to question when you stop, and is there a place when one stops.
Feder: OK, fairly stated. I have a couple of things I want to do in response to that.
But let me just mention one more time, our number is 212-244-1050.
You know before you used the metaphor about cards, you know you got to play with the cards you’re dealt, you know when you play cards, you can fold. Now wait a minute! You can fold, and everybody understands that. There are many kinds of laws in the world and the law of playing with cards is that you can just back out if you think you’re losing or if it’s painful for you of if things are going to go bad for you. You know, you can bring it down to specifics, too. It’s common practice throughout history, everybody knows this, that doctors in hospitals, without making any issue of it, because they arrested, have been acceding to patients’ wishes, even sometimes crossing a line, and not even asking patients when they see them in tremendous agony. They have been killing them, to use a certain word, all that for a long time. Now I just got through reading a book by Stephan Ambrose about WWII. There was and incident where an American soldier was asked by German soldier, who just had both legs blown off, and was dying in tremendous agony and pain – he said that he asked several soldiers to shoot him, but they wouldn’t do it, but one man did it. And he said: “I couldn’t leave the guy lie there, he begged me to end his life”.
You know, it’s a long way between walking around on the earth and whoever G-d or whatever G-d may be, G-d is very far away for a lot of people, maybe some closer to other people than He is to other people. When you’re sitting there, and yourself – let’s put it on a personal basis, I have terminal cancer, I am in tremendous agony or I am in pain, I don’t have the right to say to myself: this is my life, there is nothing ennobling about this, I look like a monster and a wreck, everybody around me can hardly look at me, I don’t even recognize people any more, people are not seeing the person I used to be, I can contribute nothing to anyone, and I am in tremendous pain, I am hurting other people by the position I am in – who is to forbid me to do this? I don’t understand why there should be any law against it. Well, I know this is going in direct conflict with what you said, but that’s my feeling.
Jacobson: The difference – to drive a point home – the difference between what you’re saying and between what I’m saying, is the difference of who defines what you do with your life.
It’s a legitimate perspective, that which you have just articulated, if there is no G-d. If there is no G-d, than you are completely correct. See, there is no one else to talk to, except your own discretion, what you do with your life. And for that matter, let me make the point – you don’t have to use such an extreme example. What happens, a person reaches the age of 45, if their life is broken, they’ve gone bankrupt, and they want to commit suicide? Now you’re sitting with them, and they say: my life is terrible, like, I’ll throw that scenario at you: so you can also argue and you can say, Hey, your life is yours, and you can jump out of the window. I would submit, knowing you a little, you would probably try to persuade the person: look, life is difficult, now it seems that way, people have overcome challenges, lets go out for a coffee, you try to soothe the person. But the person gets into a rational philosophical argument at that point, the same argument can be stated: it’s his life, he chose at that point that his life is not worth living. He is humiliated by his financial situation, as many people did when Wall Street crashed, or many other times, and he is not mentally imbalanced. He is a very ration, very intelligent person. Mental imbalance, you’ll argue, well the person does not understand, so you have to be protective like a child; you won’t just let anyone do whatever.
Obviously, the situation your are addressing, evokes compassion and empathy which I have equally to you – I’m just saying that if you do take the principle of a G-d-given life, then the issue begins much before that person is living in pain in the hospital – it begins when they’re healthy: whose life is it then? What do you do with it? And – so the perspective you’re presenting, I have no problem hearing one that completely conflicts with what I’m saying, I’m just telling you, lets drive the point, the point is, the distinction between what we are saying is, one is based on G-d determines what you do with your life, and the other is based on what you determine what you do with your life.
Now, let me say this: the question is, should our legal system, our constitution intervene there – that’s a very good question. How much should they say and how shouldn’t they? How much – what right do they have? Should they stop people from jumping off the bridge? What do you think about that? People committing suicide. You see, right now the law is: that’s what the police department does.
Feder: Well, that’s based on the assumption (and you mentioned this a couple of times), its based on the assumption that this a country where G-d is important. As you said, that the people who founded this country and throughout our history the concept of G-d, whichever way you look at it, has been important. And, when you take that into account, you say that there is higher power which has given us our lives and we don’t have the right to take it after all. And also, I would talk to that person, I would try very hard to that person. And I have talked people out of doing this. I’ve spent years with some friends of mine off and on, and I’m sure a lot of us, people who are listening have been in this position.
And, we did talk about it. But I’m talking a specific case, with this guy, Kevorkian, we are talking to people who dying already, they are on their way, and are pain at the same time. This is not the same thing as somebody who has had a financial setback.
Jacobson: I understand, but that – the point I’m making is that philosophically it may be the exactly the same, in right intensity and emotional reaction I have the same reaction as you do, but philosophically, you can’t give me a distinction between the two. If life is in your control, you do what you want to do with it, and ultimately, that’s the ultimate decision-maker is the person with their own life. I understand that one is much more extreme than the other. But philosophically, I don’t see the distinction between the two. As I said earlier, where do you draw the line.
Let me just throw one more thing out here. I, too, would have very difficult problem if I saw someone in deep pain and asked me, especially someone I loved — I would not want to be in that position, because, I know that I respect life too much. If I was able to touch that person’s life, I don’t know how, you know, how I would treat other peoples’ lives in different situations. There is an element of sanctity that just comes, and sometimes compassion can be a crime as well.
Feder: So, wait a minute, you said you were trying to get out of it. Obviously, you can’t just get out of the room. Let’s say that somebody is lying in a room, and they say to you: look, you know this is…
Jacobson: Well, I didn’t mean to say get out of it. I didn’t mean to escape it. I mean to say… I wouldn’t want to see that pain, so I shouldn’t be tested in this way. I mean, but I clearly believe that life is not just question of comfort and discomfort.
Feder: So, you would say to this person – what would you say to this person? You’re sitting right there on their bed and they’re saying to you: “Look, you love me, don’t you”? And you say, “Yes, I do”. And they say, “Can you put me out of my misery, can you help me somehow, can you…” – what do you say to that person?
Jacobson: That’s a great question. Let’s take the question coming in. I’ll respond to that afterwards.
Feder: We have a call from Lester, and he says he is from New York! It’s a big city, Lester, so, go ahead, you are on the air. (…) Lester, don’t despair, you can always call back, we are here for you, but don’t do anything rash.
Jacobson: But anyhow, here’s my point: what I would say, going back to our discussion on pain in general, what does one say to a person who is deep in pain? Because there are people who are in pain who are not lying in the hospital. They are five years old or ten years old. What do you say to them? What do you say when they are in such terrible pain. They say, “Please end this”…
Feder: You mean a child says this?
Jacobson: Yes, a child, or teenager. A teenager, and you know clearly that they’re going to come out of this pain.
Feder: Oh, well, that’s different. That a different story. We’re talking about a very specific thing here. There many, and this is not an isolated philosophical abstract thing, we are talking about people every day, there are tens of thousands of people in this country in this situation, right now, while we’re talking, who are dying, they are not going to come out of it, and they’re in pain, and that’s what I’m talking about. I’m narrowing down to specific instances. That’s what Kevorkian is all about. It’s not about people who can be saved, these are people who can’t be saved.
Jacobson: Well, so let me tell me a story. I may have told the story before, but, this is a woman who lives in Toronto, who was exactly in this situation. Terminal illness, and the doctors had given up hope. They were keeping life, sustaining her on life-support. And she was in deep pain for over two years. And she was already agreeing to sign the papers just to release them from anything and just to take her off life-support, and she should pass on. The pain was just too unbearable.
This is a story that happened with me personally because her daughter bought, had a copy of my book “Toward a Meaningful Life”. And she visited her mother (she was from Chicago) in Toronto and read sections that were very soothing and inspiring. There was one line, not one line, one section in the chapter on pain and suffering that did something miraculous. The chapter discusses the issue about pain in life in general. A person who has pain, the pain accumulates, sometimes you make a calculation, if you sat down and made like a business calculation: how much suffering and loss one endures and how much gains one has in life. You may add up that the deficits are much greater than the pluses in your life. And based on that calculation, it may not be worth it!
But if you measure life in a qualitative perspective, not a quantitative, where your life is given to you from Above, that there is a purpose to life and sometimes is unfathomable in its full entirety and scope to us human beings, we see life as more complicated, than the moments of pain and loss, even though they may be more than the moments of joy, all are a part of bigger picture, our lives are perceived in a different way. And a person has to accept that life is a G-d given gift that should be embraced in its entirety.
Let’s take an example: in a computer program, you may see, someone say, hey, what’s the big thing, let’s take out that extra dot, but today we know in modern technology that extra dot can destroy your whole program. The complexity of a leaf is an entire complex molecular structure, atomic structure, so life is much more complicated than what meets the eye.
Feder: In other words, there is no way that we can comprehend the whole big picture.
Jacobson: Exactly. So when you have a person who is born handicapped, where you know that the doctors say this person is going to live their entire life this way…
Feder: And they may be in tremendous pain every day, too…
Jacobson: …in pain, plus psychological pain plus pain to the parents and to the family. Lets put them out of their misery right there. You know, at age one or age two. I mean, I specifically use examples because you see, you try to focus on one particular example and I’m trying to point out that they’re all philosophically under the same headline, so to speak. So, let me tell you the end of the story.
So the woman listening to this, said to her daughter: “I don’t want to be taken off the life support. You keep me alive as long as I can. I want to see you, I want to see your children, I want to stay as long as I can with this life and it’s OK, it’s a gift given to me I’ll endure the pain.
Miraculously, what happened was that she regressed. Her illness left. The doctors attributed this to optimism, to hope. That she wanted to fight, and when you fight, it strengthens your immune system, she wasn’t giving up. Now she’s alive and kicking today, and she is healthy and well. I’d love to have her on the show and ask her this question. Now, I’m not suggesting that every case, there will be a miracle of that nature and that’s a rule, but it’s a philosophy, you see, it’s a way of thinking. And I am looking for the exact words. So here you have a case of a child, who you know will live a life of misery, who will not have opportunities that normal healthy children have, parents will have to suffer psychological pain, financial loss… Let’s forget about the finance, let’s talk about…
The only answer is that life is complex and beyond our understanding. Life,quality of life is not just when we think it’s working, that means it’s working. Now, you feel comfortable, I’m in joy, I’m satisfied – that means my life is working. The Talmud says something interesting: A Tzadik, a righteous person, even after (biological) death is alive, and a wicked person, even in his life time is dead.
Feder: And the meaning is?
Jacobson: The meaning is you can biologically alive and spiritually dead. The meaning is you can biologically alive and walk and talk and you’re healthy and breathe and you have no health problem, but spiritually, or on a virtue level, you can be a horrible human being, and abusive human being. Is that called being alive? So, biologically, of course it is, medically the guy is alive. But – this person could be putting other people in deep, deep psychological misery. Just to show you that the definition of life is a little more complex than just biological life. Then you can have a person who is really suffering, that can barely move, yet their glow, their majesty, can be inspiring to thousands of people.
Now, I don’t understand why that person should be suffering and another person should be walking around healthy, I have no idea why. I don’t understand G-d’s ways. The age-old question: why do the wicked prosper, and the good often suffer? But the fact is that’s part of life’s realities. And it’s not a question, I understand that particular question, that moment, the person is going to die anyway, a day earlier a day later…
Feder: Or a month or two…
Jacobson: … put him out of their misery. But I would say, if you go with that attitude why then not kill mentally retarded or the handicapped child, why then also
Feder: Well the Nazis did exactly that.
Jacobson: In other words, once you tamper with life, where do you stop, where do you stop? And I would be very careful, that governments and laws should not be written in any way that etches in stone. I would rather risk intervening more in protecting life than in saying that, OK, this life isn’t worth it. Because once you do that, all you need in the next government another person says, “you know what? I’ll push the envelope. I think this type of life isn’t worth it”, so I would be very careful. And I think the Founding Fathers did say something: “All men are created equal”. Why created? Because if don’t have a basic principle that they’re created, then maybe they’re not equal?
Feder: So, in other words, if some other force created us, who are we to find out what’s equal and what is not equal?
Jacobson: Exactly. You have no right to say another person is less equal than you are. And that’s what you really dealing with – and yet what is real life? Does everyone have equal right to live? But I think that, based on the principle that I stated earlier, no we don’t have equal right to die, or to die when we want to die. That’s not given to us. Just like it’s wasn’t given to us how to be born or whom to be born to, the same is with the circumstances and time of death.
Feder: Alright, let me just take a break here, we are on a tight schedule here on the radio, let me just re-identify…
You got a fascinating quote from Kevorkian, and I was wondering, would you mind reading it to me right now, because it really gets to the heart of the issues we are talking about.
Jacobson: Yes, actually someone gave it to me as preparation to the show, and someone had downloaded it from the Internet who wanted to really see what he was about. Transcripts from his speeches and his interviews. And the speech that he made to the National Press Club, so in 1996 Kevorkian said: “In ancient Greece this was widely practiced by physicians (“this” meaning obviously assisted suicide). This was widely practiced by physicians, openly. The whole society accepted this as medical practice. You see, they were rational. You are a human body. You are a biological organism like every other biological organism. You bleed when you are cut and when you die, you stink. Now, what’s so sacred about that”.
Feder: Obviously, Mr. Kevorkian is not a religious man!
Jacobson: No, no, but I don’t particularly, frankly, read this quote to make this argument – this just drives the point somewhat, because I could see someone saying – I wont be so gross about it, I’ll be more subtle about it, but when it gets down to it, the fact is, we are just a bacteria, roaming around, crawling around like microbes on this earth, except we are a little more sophisticated than bacteria. We can build fax machines and cellular phones and cable TV’s, but essentially life as valuable as a microbe, and that attitude, that there’s nothing more to life than that – from that attitude, you don’t have to say that when you die, you stink, the way he put it, I find it even repulsive to repeat, but that attitude essentially concludes, yes, that we define what is most comfortable for us, what is called quality life, what is what is called “not quality” life, and that’s one approach.
Another approach is an entirely different one: quoting the Bible that G-d, an architect and engineer that created this Universe that is here by design, by plan, we are part of a complex system. We can make a major difference. We have a destiny, a calling. We are partner with G-d in creation. What you do matters, now and forever. Everything you do is meaningful. Life takes on an entirely different dimension and different meaning that – yes, it’s not just an accident, we are not just another microbe roaming around this earth, but your life is sacred. The word “sacred” means “it’s not in your control” and what is in your control is to take the life and make it as good as possible and help as many people as possible and transform this earth into a place of light instead of a place of darkness.
Feder: Do you know, a lot of people feel that, unfortunately, I’ve known a lot of people who’ve actually committed suicide. That’s just been part of my life experience. A lot of reasons that people commit suicide have something in common and one of them almost always is: they have always felt and still feel that their life is never in their control in the face place – and this is really interesting: based on what you said, that ironically enough, in the very act of killing themselves, they feel, for the first time in their lives, they actually did have some control over what happened to them.
Do you see what I’m driving at here? The people who feel the most despair and who are driven to this are often people who are told by other people, including people who are brought up in religious atmospheres, maybe not a spiritual but a religious one, but they really aren’t in control of their own life, that their life belongs to their parents, or to G-d, or to somebody else. In fact, they say, “Here’s an act of real decision, finally, I’m going to take life into my own hands”.
Jacobson: Well, interesting, and I will say this. I think that what we are discussing are symptoms of a deeper distortion from a life-view point. I believe, and I think I’ve stated many times, that often G-d and religion are presented to children and students in a way that is completely distorted, which is that G-d controls your life. Blind faith – when I make the statement that G-d gave us life, I do not mean that we are absolved of responsibility. This is a two-way street, it’s a partnership. You see, what I’m talking about, is a freeing experience and not a limiting one. G-d being part of our lives is not meant to be, that we have no say and no partnership. On the contrary, it makes it more incumbent upon us, because we have a very serious partner called G-d. This isn’t a game. This isn’t like, “Who cares one way or another?” The stakes are very high, there’s a real higher purpose to your life, that’s the point.
Unfortunately, the people that you are describing, their G-d is not of a higher purpose. Their G-d is about angering the Father in Heaven, who gives us guilt and curses us and punishes us, limits us. It’s not perceived as self-actualization and being the best that you can be; it’s not empowering. As a result, I can see, many people growing up in that type of constricting environment who will say finally, I have control over my life. It’s a real symptom of a real deeper malady of a deeper problem which is the celebration of life is absolute when it’s G-d-given. It is not just that I will be here and breathe freely and I can dance. We have been given the biggest gift of all, which is life on this earth. You can make a real difference. This is supposed to be a freeing, uplifting and empowering experience. When you know that, then when the pain does come your way, you see it differently. You don’t see it as “my comfort is the bottom line”, you see it as “my purpose is the bottom line” and you feel blessed to be part of that higher plan that you’ve been chosen to be part of that important plan. The most important project that ever existed!
You, Mike Feder, and every listener, were chosen to be part of a very big project, OK? And you know that, it’s in your gut, it’s in your blood. You’ve been told that by your parents, by society, I’m just giving you the scenario.You’ve been chosen for this project and how you behave, and every detail of your behavior makes a difference, you know? You are not just an extra, you’re indispensable. Now there is a setback, something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. It could be pain, it could be loss, it could be trauma.
Feder: It could be repeated over many years
Jacobson: Yes! But you know in your gut that you are here for that higher project. So what do you think? There are two options: 1) I quit, I’m going to leave this project or 2) No, I’m going to go through it because this is a gift and I may not understand all the challenges that are given to me, but I want to see it through, I’m part of this. Now, if you don’t feel that you are part of a special project called life, as soon as there is some type of setback, you don’t see any benefits. What’s the benefit of life? What gift is it?
I often use an example: if someone offers you a 100 pounds of stones to carry across the street, you would decline, right? You don’t need the stones, you don’t need to exert yourself. But if someone says to you there’s a 100 pounds of diamonds carried across the street, not only will you embrace that, but you’ll ask for 200 pounds of diamonds. Now, 100 pounds of stones does not weight more than 100 pounds of diamonds, but there’s value to the diamonds, its worth the exertion. You don’t need stones. I don’t think people are afraid of burden, but if people do not see that there’s a benefit to it, that’s what happens, there’s no benefit in life, there’s no value, I don’t understand the value of life, therefore, when a challenge comes our way, I can argue that many, many people, should they be challenged in a very serious way, would easily relinquish their life, because you know why? Because even when they’re healthy, they don’t see absolute value in life, you see what I’m saying?
The point that I’m making here, is that it doesn’t begin with suicide, it doesn’t begin with when things are not working right. It begins when things are working right, when things are going well. I would like to ask someone when things are going well, they’re making money, they’re healthy, their family is well, everything is well. Ask them, how valuable is your life, how much do you cherish, how much do you celebrate? So I’m sure everyone will have good words to say. But let’s dissect it: and how much worth is it to you to remain in this life? So when things are going well, everyone is saying, no matter what, “Oh, this is the greatest thing, it’s a great blessing”. But the fact remains that when there is a challenge, suddenly, we have to force ourselves, like an eclipse of the sun, forces you to look at the sunlight in a new way, you suddenly see: “One second, how valuable is life to me anyway?” And I would argue that the real problem is how valuable is life,not so much the choice to commit suicide.
Feder: And I would suppose that the reason that you put this book together in the first place, that you had the Meaningful Life Center is that you are trying to tell people, obviously, that there is a meaning in life and the reason that you have this radio show is that you want to let people know in advance that there is a meaning to their life before it all starts to fall apart.
Jacobson: Preventive medicine, that’s called. Because the most preventive thing that you can give to you children, literally, is that they matter, that they are meaningful, and that they are absolutely indispensable. Because once that exists, everything else follows. And if that foundation doesn’t exist, or is eroded, that everything else if more or less like glamour show. Yes, thing are going well, we’re playing out the game, but, the bedrock, the foundation is missing, which is that I’m needed here.
Feder: Did you ever convince anybody of this personally in your life?
Jacobson: I’m trying to convince you!
Feder: Well, you know, we have a few years here… Good luck to you, that what I have to say. But really, has anybody ever come up to you and said…
Jacobson: That’s a good question, I’ll respond to that.
Feder: I mean these are words – they are good words, but you know…
Jacobson: Well, let me say this: I’ve never convinced anybody of anything, frankly, because I dont believe life is about debates and convincing people of something. People have to convince themselves. I think what you can do is present the people with another option that the secular society, or, lets say, the random forces of our education have now provided us. I believe in the power of resonance. I believe that deep down, everyone has a soul, and they are absolutely significant and indispensable, but society does everything possible, I don’t mean intentionally, to depersonalize us, so we are like statistics, one of billions, you know, you are statistics on someone’s balance sheet, you value is measured by your looks, your youth, your productivity, your buying power.
So, what I believe, and here’s where I have been successful, is putting or offering people the other option, and let people embrace it on their own, in their own way. I don’t believe in convincing…
Feder: The other option is that there is meaning beyond and beneath all these other things.
Jacobson: Yes, the other option is that you are indispensable. You matter, absolutely, your life is gift, it’s given to you, and you have the opportunity, every difficulty in life is a challenge that you have an opportunity to overcome.
Feder: I took the subway down to the show – you have lot of work ahead of you.
Jacobson: Well, as I said, I think, you see, if it was an issue of convincing people, then you’re right, but it lies at the heart of everyone’s deepest instincts, then I think it’s just a question of uncovering it and helping people to get rid of some of the debris that doesn’t allow it to emerge.
Feder: I believe it is true that everybody in their heart, if they haven’t been too far gone, let’s say, really does want to believe that there is something real special about them? Should we try to get a call here? Hello, you are on the air.
Jack: OK, I just wanted to say that I found your position incredible that you thought it would be so difficult for the rabbi to convince people that living the life in this way is something that’s worth the pain and the effort that’s involved. I’m 37 years old, and, you know, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve lost my mother. G-d bless, my grandmother is 89 years old, and the pain that she feels every time when I talk to her about my mother is more than palpable. But – life is sweet and we have things to do here and responsibilities. And this a woman who is very simple and believes deep down in her soul that there’s more than – that there is a purpose than just the day to day going through the steps, that there is a reason and a purpose, and that when you do that, everything is totally different.
Feder: Well, I appreciate your comments, Jack. Do you have a question or just wanted to…
Jack: No, no, I was a little taken aback at the negativity that I heard.
Feder: You mean from me, no?
Jack: Well, kind of, not from the rabbi.
Feder: In a way, that’s sort of my job here. And I’m not going to say that I’m lying when I say that and I’m not going to say that my job is to be negative but I do have a lot of questions about this, I mean I have seen people close in my life go through excruciating agony, both physical and mental over a period of time, over decades sometimes. People have expressed to me that they hadn’t any idea why they were alive and they couldn’t stand it any more and I think it all depends on how you want to approach this, I mean people have said to me “I can’t stand it, I want to end my life”. I have never told anyone that it’s a good idea and I have tried to talk people out of it many times, and I am involved in this occasionally. Even now, sometimes, people talk to me.
Jacobson: I’m glad that I’m getting callers that support my position rather than yours.But I think just in defense of Mike; he is presenting a different point of view, he has to represent a certain viewpoint of people who are perhaps skeptical, but your words are very encouraging, and thank you for your phone call.
Feder: We have about one minute left before we start approaching, we are beginning our descent into the end of the program here. You are listening to Rabbi Jacobson and I’m Mike Feder and the topic has been today the Kevorkian-assisted suicide. And suicide – are you the soul owner of your life.
I’ll tell you real quick – because we have very little time here – a story. My mother committed suicide. She was mentally ill and had tried many times in her life to commit suicide; real attempts, and some false attempts. And finally she did. And I’ll tell you, I went out there that very morning that she committed suicide, and I sat next to her in the bed. She was young, she was not physically ill, she was relatively young when she did that (I wasn’t so old myself). And I sat down next to her and I had two feelings. Now, I’ll just tell you this, and I’m interested to hear what your reaction is. Not to make it so abstract, but… first of all, all of her life, she had been trying… she had felt so distraught, and so, and life was so meaningless to her, that she had told many people that she wanted to end her life. And a lot of people finally were convinced that her life was so terrifying to her and so awful that would be a blessing for her not to have to endure this every day of her life. She suffered terribly for decades on end.
And I sat down next to the bed, and I looked at her, and I had two things that occurred in my mind. I spoke out loud to her, whatever was left there, and I said: first of all, I admired the fact that she finally took her life and I’ll tell you the truth, this is how I felt: that she took her life in her own hands, and finally, instead of begging doctors to give her the right pills, and asking people to help her out, to try to get other people to do thing to live a new life, she finally said “I can’t stand this pain anymore, it’s been going long enough, 30-40 years, I’m going to take it in my own hands and do this”. And I admired her, at that moment, for her courage.
And the next thing I thought was,”How can you do this to me? Is this a lesson? Am I supposed to understand this now, too? And just to follow up, real quick. In my life, I have also contemplated this awful thing. And I was convinced not to do it, that I have children, and this is not a legacy that I can leave to them. And in this case I’m not having a debate with you, I’m merely repeating something which may be of some value. And it wasn’t that I thought that someone has created me and that I had a higher purpose, but in a way it was, it was because I thought that this was not a legacy that I could pass on to my children the way my mother passed that on to me. And I leave that with you, I don’t know, you know, where that goes but, it’s a complicated thing when this happens, we don’t want people that we love to suffer, but there is something else going on.
Jacobson: It’s very complicated. And I am quite overwhelmed, actually. I feel your pain, in a way, and I am sure everyone listening does. It’s hard to respond rationally and philosophically to something of this nature. You are dealing here with deep deep emotional despair and – and no one should ever know anything of this type of – where you feel there is no other option.
Speaking to you, who’s seen that and experienced it and what you’ve just shared, all I can say is that you are sacred by the mere fact that you made this choice not to leave this legacy with your children. I would not judge your mother, and I would not judge anyone. I would not judge the situation, because it’s not my job, just like it’s not our job to take our lives, it’s also not our job to judge people. There is a G-d for that. It is between the person and G-d.
I will say this: that the fact that you made such a choice is a very strong and noble act, and you may not have been persuaded by our creator, but the fact that you feel that that’s a legacy for your children shows that there’s value to life. It’s not just meaningless – “I do what I want, and who cares what happens next”. You care enough for your children to know that you don’t want to leave them such an option. And I’m not, I don’t even know if that’s rational, I don’t know if you can rationalize it. Let’s say your children ask you. They say, hey, the pain may be too powerful, but – I’ll tell you this: we are touching here on one of the darkest areas of life. When a person, putting yourself in the shoes of a person who is about to hurt themselves in that way, meaning – and they are rational…
Feder: I don’t know how rational they are
Jacobson: Well, rational I mean to say that they are not, you know… I’ll tell you the worse scenario, when a person made a calculated decision that it’s not worth it. It’s such a dark moment – but I have to go back and I say can’t venture there, I don’t want to stand in that place. I’d like to stand a step before he reaches that door. That’s what we’re discussing here and that is how do you infuse people with that value and cherishing of life that they celebrate it despite its difficulties. That’s really the challenge that I think our show is about.
If I were on the phone with someone who was about to who knows what I would take a different course, you do anything possible to give them some hope, but if you have the time and you have your children before you and you have your students and you have people you can reach, preventive medicine, we live in a society where I’m shocked more people don’t start questioning the value of their own lives. But, you see, we have many distractions, things that keep us busy and thank G-d that he blesses us with health, but I have to say is that a show like this, in my opinion it’s a failure if it doesn’t infuse people with the confidence that you matter and with all the difficulties in life that it’s all part of a bigger picture and never to give up – you could see it through.
Feder: Nothing to improve on that, You’re listening to Rabbi Simon Jacobson, and this is “Toward a Meaningful Life” with Simon Jacobson, and this is Mike Feder and we’ll be on next week.
I want to mention that we’re very grateful that this show was underwritten by Mary Ellen McCarthy and David and Lilly Hollander in honor of the upcoming wedding of Yosef Yitzchak Jacobson and
Esti Shlomo, and in honor of Yosef’s parents, Gershon and Sylvia. And we thank them very much for bring this program to the listeners. Thirty seconds left.
Jacobson: Well, lets conclude on an upbeat note. The issue here is the celebration of life. Tomorrow morning, if everyone would say, that Modeh Ani that I once suggested acknowledging to G-d that G-d gave you a great gift called life and that life, and how you choose to live it, can make a positive difference on people’s lives, is the best antidote, and the strongest infusion of hope that we can give to someone in this lifetime.