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Hurricane Dorian: We're All Living in the Cone of Uncertainty

September 2, 2019 | by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

How to react to feelings of mortality and fragility.

What if you knew when you were going to die? A group of researches in Germany collected blood samples from 44,168 people with ages ranging from 18 to 109 years old. Over the next 17 years, 5,512 people from that group died. After looking at 226 biomarkers in the samples, the researchers determined that 14 of the blood measurements, including inflammation and fluid balance, were the greatest indicators to predict if a person would die within the next 5 to 10 years.

To test their theory, they analyzed blood sample data taken from 7,603 people in 1997. Then, using the 14 identified biomarkers, they attempted to predict the likelihood that each person would have died within the next five to 10 years. They found their predictions were right approximately 83 percent of the time, higher than even they anticipated.

Based on their conclusion, published in a prominent medical journal, with one sample of your blood you can know if you don’t change anything, how much longer you will live. The question is what will you do with that information?

The truth is, we don’t need a blood test to tell us that we won’t live forever. In South Florida we are currently facing a category 5 hurricane with potentially catastrophic conditions. When a new storm develops and begins heading towards making landfall, the experts offer their best projections of where it is going and when it will get there. The “cone of uncertainty” is formed, and with each periodic update the communities and people in its path desperately look to see if they are still projected to sustain a hit. As long as one remains in the cone of uncertainty, there is an unavoidable angst and the tortuous process of waiting and anticipating what is to come.

None of us have certainty; at these times, we all confront our mortality and vulnerability.

If this past year in the world in general and our community in particular has taught us anything, it is that we are all in the cone of uncertainty always. Each day that we wake up is uncertain of what it can and will bring. Will we be visited by a devastating diagnosis, a mass shooting, a natural disaster, a terror event, a car accident or some other threat? None of us have certainty; at these times, we all confront our mortality and vulnerability.

But what do we do with that feeling? Will we give up, give in, fatalistically become complacent and content? Or, will it motivate us to stop procrastinating and take advantage of each and every moment? Will we not bother trying because what is it all worth, or will we finally stop saying I will get to it and make it, whatever it is for us, happen right now? We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, we can only make the most of today.

Our rabbis describe two opposite reactions to a feeling of mortality and fragility. They discourage us from approaching life with the attitude of echol, v’shaso, ki machar namus, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Recognition of our own mortality has for some become a license for hedonism, to live selfishly and spend life pursuing immediate gratification and instant pleasure

Instead, our rabbis encourage us to say im lo achshav aimasai, if not now, when. Judaism teaches us to take our feelings of fragility and vulnerability and use them as springboards to grow, change and make a difference. A sense of mortality should encourage us to take advantage of every moment, to cherish every opportunity. Indeed, the Torah believes carpe diem, seize the day, but not for pleasure and selfish interests. Rather, seize the day to contribute to society, positively affect another person, become a better spouse, parent or grandparent, make the most of every moment. It is never too late to become the person you were meant to be.

I am always amazed by our hurricane heroes, the people who step up, show up and so generously help others by lending their generator, putting up shutters, dropping off a flashlight or just sharing where there is no line for gas. Some face a category 5 hurricane turn inward only to take care of themselves and their home. Others confront a collective potential catastrophe and turn outwards asking what can I do for others? Some secure their home, their possessions and their safety and others think about a neighbor, a single, ill, or older person who may need some help. The feeling of mortality and fear of the unknown can inspire a more selfish today or a more selfless today, the choice is up to us.

We have begun the month of Elul and with it the countdown to the High Holy Days. It is not a coincidence that we end Mussaf both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur with a moving piyyut that begins each stanza by signing the word hayom, today.

None of us know what tomorrow will bring…literally. Will we be hit by a catastrophic storm or will it shift away from us? Will we suffer damage or emerge unscathed? Will we be in danger or escape safely? Uncertainty is a large cone and we are in it. Nobody, including the weather people, know what tomorrow brings. So for now, let’s make sure to live our best lives in the only dimension we can – hayom, today.

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