The BEST: On the Brink of Everything

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The BEST: On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer
Reviewed by Tammy Jacobowitz

We live in a youth-obsessed society. We celebrate innovation, sparkly packaging, and cutting-edge efficiency. Productivity fuels our engines of self-worth.  The current pandemic has exposed so many of our collective fault-lines, not least of which is our underdeveloped appreciation for our elders. Nationally, we have failed to halt our routines in order to safeguard the lives of the vulnerable among us — revealing our thin veneration, the fragile ties we have with our elders. It’s true, our culture does not place elders on a pedestal, seeking to learn from their life wisdom. But our tepid treatment is a symptom of our fear of death, of losing our faculties, of confronting the inevitability of death. We have not learned how to integrate an awareness of our mortality within our living; instead, we ignore it, section it off, and manage to convince ourselves that it will happen to everyone but to us.

Parker J. Palmer’s book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, offers a vital pathway to reclaim a healthy, life-giving embrace of aging and mortality. Best known for his writings on education and spirituality, in this slim volume Palmer shares much of the wisdom he has achieved in his 80 years. His lucid prose stops you in your tracks, making space for new ways of thinking. His reflections about life, meaning, and purpose are an invitation extended to people in all life stages

Every day, I get closer to the brink of everything. We’re all headed that way, of course, even when we’re young, though most of us are too busy with Important Matters to ponder our mortality. But when a serious illness or accident strikes, or someone dear to us dies — or we go to a class reunions and wonder who all those old people are — it becomes harder to ignore the drop-off that lies just over the edge of our lives.
My overriding feeling is gratitude for the gift of life.
Above all, I like being old because the view from the brink is striking, a full panorama of my life- and a bracing breeze awakens me to new ways of understanding my own past, present, and future.

We have no choice about death. But we do have choices to make about how we hold the inevitable.

Why this is the BEST: Palmer reminds us that confronting mortality can help us to gain meaning in our life, to reset priorities, to focus on the powers we do have. It need not be depressing or scary to contemplate the inevitable; instead, in measured doses, it can be reinvigorating, and clarifying. For me, the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur affords the same opportunity. Mortality is not a theme per se of either day, but U’netana Tokef, the emotional centerpiece of the High Holiday prayers, creates an up-close encounter with the looming possibility of death, in its many forms. In its traditional reading, the “evil decree” of death can be avoided if we commit ourselves to teshuva, tefilla and tzedaka. But in Palmer’s style, U’netana Tokef might offer another message. If we allow ourselves to consider the inevitable, the absolute certainty of our eventual death —  if we look it straight in the eye and do not flinch —  then we can use that awareness to invest ourselves in living better, more fully and more wholeheartedly. What might this mean? Living with a heightened consciousness of our actions and their impact (teshuva). Living with a deeper sense of connection with our Creator and Maker (tefilla). Living with a clear vision of how we can be of service to those around us, weaving a life of responsibility, giving and kindness (tzedaka). This year, in these months of constricted living, we all stand to benefit from this clarifying and widening perspective. 

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the chair of the Tanakh department at the SAR High School in Riverdale, NY, and is the founding director of Makom Ba’Siach at SAR, an immersive adult education program for parents.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on August 27, 2020]

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