Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
August 2018 - Volume 18, No. 8
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Becoming Zusha

From a trusted mentor, Michael Meade, I came across this old Hassidic tale about the beloved Rabbi Zusha:[1]

Some years ago, I’d heard this same story, and recall my delight in its hearing. But having recently added an additional birthday to the number of my life’s passage, it resonates within me at a deeper level. I can already add it to one of my favorites.

In times past, there was a famous rabbi, known as Rabbi Zusha. He was much beloved by his students because he was both honest and witty, as well as knowledgable. When he got old and ready to die, his students gathered around him, and found their beloved friend in uncontrollable tears. Knowing he was about to die, and and hoping for some final wisdom from his deathbed - they asked him hesitantly, “Zusha, how do you feel?” He answered, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what God might say to me.” They responded in surprise, “What! Why should you be afraid? You’re the greatest rabbi we’ve ever had. You have the vision of Abraham, the courage of Moses - how you possibly be afraid?” And Zusha said, “I’m not afraid that God might say to me, ‘Why weren’t you more like Abraham?’ Because I can say “I was never intended to be Abraham. And I’m not afraid that God might say to me ‘Why weren’t you more like Moses, leading the people?’ because I can say I was never intended to be Moses. But if God should say to me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you more like Zusha?’ For that I have no answer.” And then he died.

Becoming ourselves    

At the end the question God asks isn’t about religion, it’s practice or keeping it’s rules. It isn’t about manners, or being a good parent, or reputation, or behavior, or our portfolio. The question at the end is, did we become ourselves. Meade calls that “becoming ourselves” the second adventure of our lives.

The Second Half of Life

It has been the great psychologist Carl Jung, and Michael Meade that have primarily, over my recent years, impressed upon me the concept of “the second half of life.”

This is the time when the question and search for “Who am I?” joins hands with the ‘second question’ “Why am I here?”

The search for one’s Identity now melds into the search for one’s Purpose.[2]

Time takes on a new meaning, a new intensity. At one level, we can know how long we’ve been here, we can measure it. But we don’t know how long we have ahead of us - how long we have left.

A different Grief - and Perhaps a Panic

In some tellings of the story, Zusha was driven to deep, uncontrollable tears by it. And he was open and honest enough to include this also as a final teaching for his students. This grief was his final and perhaps greatest gift to his friends. And it only resolved itself into the silence of his death.

I find in my work that the questions that emerge in mid-life, and beyond, are different questions from those earlier in life. Beginning in mid-life they seem to come from a deeper place, what is often called the place of the ‘soul’. By soul, I’m not necessarily speaking from a religious context, but from that place deep within where a richer meaning of life now wants to emerge. Perhaps it can be said (though with over-simplicity), the first half of life has to do with the Spirit, with the search and movement upwards. The second half of live has more to do with the Soul, the movement downwards.

It’s been said that all philosophy is born of the knowledge of death. Philosophy is a second half of life exploration. That’s why it can run so deep.

Some mythic vision speaks of each of us being born with a life purpose - and the trajectory of our life includes the life-time search and fulfillment of that purpose.[3]  When I was given my name at my birth, within that naming is hidden the path and purpose of my life. And it’s unique to each of us. That’s why our judgment isn’t necessarily whether we fit the expectations,  limitations and institutions of those around us.

We are judged by how truly we became our unique given selves.

Also a Joy

As I’ve said, there can be a grief that we too often miss this work, or that we only find it so late in life.[4] But underneath many carry this sense of life as an ever-present joy - the undercarriage of a well-lived, even if struggled, life.   

Sometimes I’ll remind folks that at the end of life, they may look back and see (celebrate) times and moments in which they were most “fully alive.”  That can translate to being “fully themselves.”

And in spite of those times, when we may seem at odds with so much of what others may expect or insist - those are what God has always wanted of us.  When we were truly ourselves.

That’s why I listen more carefully these days to the teaching of Rabbi Zusha.

Pay attention!


These free monthly aural podcasts are about a half hour each, and have become a regular contribution to the feeding of my own soul for the last couple years now. Each is an exploration from a mythic perspective of the events of our current time and circumstances. And mythic discourse is often richer when in spoken than read mode. I commend them to your attention.

[2] When I speak of ‘half of life’ I don’t mean strictly a mathematically divided specific number of years - although I do find that many around age 40 or 50 seem to face this crisis.

[3] Meade often considers this mythic idea in his writings.

[4] Somewhere in a Neil Diamond lyric there are the words “some people never see the light until the day they die.”

Comments (5)

  • another gem

    Thank Bill for the link to Meade’s podcasts.

    I wonder if it is possible to know true self? The mirror analogy comes to mind where we can only see ourselves in the reflection from those who know us?

    — Simmer Reilly, 8/12/2018
  • So Insightful

    This rings true for so many of us! The second half of my life has been a journey to discover and accept the real me because I spent the first half desperately trying to be someone else. Thank you, Bill.

    — Billie, 8/13/2018
  • I've Seen the Light

    I’ve seen the light
    And I’ve seen the flame
    And I’ve been this way before
    And I’m sure to be this way again
    For I’ve been refused
    And I’ve been regained
    And I’ve seen your eyes before
    And I’m sure to see your eyes again.

    For I’ve been released
    And I’ve been regained
    And I’ve sung my song before
    And I’m sure to sing my song again

    Some people got to laugh
    Some people got to cry
    Some people got to make it through
    By never wondering why

    Some people got to sing
    Some people got to sigh
    Some people never see the light
    Until the day they die

    But I’ve been released
    And I’ve been regained
    And I’ve been this way before
    And I’m sure to be this way again

    One more time again
    Just one more time

    Songwriter: Neil Diamond
    I’ve Been This Way Before lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group

    — Cynthia, 8/13/2018
  • Christic

    For me this peaks to both my path and my guide. Thank you Bill.

    Listen on YouTube

    — Cynthia, 8/13/2018
  • Thank you all, esp. Cynthia

    Thank you Cynthia for the wonderful link .
    I have used it and love it.
    Please Bill, never stop writing.
    Thank you for spreading information and esp.the music.
    Thank you all.

    the music
    — Carol Hall, 8/22/2018

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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