Recently, on a tour of the Judean Desert with Abraham Tours while in Israel, I met a woman named Leah* who at first glance, seemed pushy and inconsiderate. She moved with a sense of deliberate urgency, as if she already knew that she was going to be late. I remember that when we left Abraham Hostels in Jerusalem with our tour guide that morning, she ran ahead of everyone else, pushing towards the car and greedily taking the front seat.
Later, while standing under the glaring sun near Mar Saba, I noticed her walk alone towards the edge of a cliff and my heart stopped. She crouched down in a squat, wrapped her arms around her knees and sobbed. Instantly, I felt ashamed of my previous assumptions but was too embarrassed to approach her and ask if she was okay.
We continued our tour that day visiting a Bedouin family, taking in views from Mount Azazel, drinking tea and enjoying the humour of our tour guide, Nir. Thanks to him, the ice between us was broken — she smiled brighter when he spoke and in return, I cowered in greater shame. It was during the car ride to lunch that Leah* shared her story: she had terminal cancer and a few short months to live.
While sitting together near a man made stream, she told me that for years she had wanted to seek out ancient stories, to learn of the complexities and challenges that plagued Israel, but mostly, to pursue a dream of visiting the desert. She was clear and intentional about what she wanted, and this left me shaken.
I never expected death to just walk up and introduce itself to me so casually, as if passing through a village on its way to the nearest town. I had misjudged its messenger and now, struggled to find the right words to express my remorse. In blink of an eye, I was forced to revise my own perspective on life.
In her book ‘Letters To My Daughter’, Maya Angelou famously writes: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Leah refused to be reduced to her death sentence and instead, chose to pursue a dream she had kept for many years. But did that dream have more meaning because she was dying? To an unsuspecting person, her actions earlier in the day had seemed impertinent — selfish even.
Many of us lead our lives passively. We tell ourselves that the right thing to do is to play small, follow the rules and dream of our desires in secret. But who can blame us? We live in a complicated world; we have become witnesses and victims to civil war, sexual assault, disease, poverty and injustice. We are asked to give more of ourselves to the causes that we believe in. To be good Samaritans. To vote and to pay our taxes. To keep a steady job, relationship and family — to do what is righteous and good for all, rather than what our hearts truly desire.
But is it possible that a certain level of selfishness can transform a person to become of value to his/her society?
The answer is simply, yes.
Leah’s value was in her ability to live her life as selfishly as possible in front of all of us in order to communicate the fragility of life — to put into perspective what was important, and what was not. In her pursuit to live out her dream despite her circumstance, she inspired the people around her to take stalk of their own situations and start living with a similar sense of urgency.
As I write this essay, I am seated at a table with a cup of coffee looking out a window from the city of Turin, in Italy. I can see the snow-capped French Alps almost touch the blue skies from here. Last year, I left a lot of things that did not serve me anymore. I no longer wanted to live for others and instead, wanted to find a way to add value to my society by doing what I loved.
None of us knows when the end will come, but if we’re lucky, we are given moments like these to remind us that tomorrow is not promised.
I think of my friend Katherine Kartis whose pursuit to live a zero waste lifestyle was born out of her own need to add value to her community. By relentlessly pursuing her dreams, she inspired countless people around her to adopt an environmentally friendly way of living.
And then there’s Kuoth Wiel, a South Sudanese model and actress who left Minnesota to pursue her dreams in Los Angeles, all the while promoting the fact that ‘refugee’ did not have to be ones lasting label. Her passion and dedication to her craft have allowed her to pick roles that amplify women of color and promote self-awareness.
Both women live their lives with that inescapable sense of urgency I saw in Leah, clearly setting out that the selfishness of pursuing dreams, is in fact not selfish at all. Your actions, thus driven by a need to add value can only inspire and push those around you to do the same.
Let us not wait until we are given a countdown to live the lives we’ve always wanted.
*With respect, the name has been changed.