Stuart Katz

My 22,000th Day: The Complexity of Life, Death, and Choosing to Live

Today marks a deeply personal and complex milestone for me. It’s my 22,000th day alive—a remarkable number of days filled with multi-faceted and crazy experiences that have shaped me. Yet, this day also coincides with September 11th, an infamous date that reverberates with pain and loss for many. The juxtaposition becomes even more poignant amid the Yamim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days, when, according to tradition, G-d inscribes who will live and who will die in the coming year.

A Close Call on 9/11 and Divine Decisions During Yamim Noraim

Twenty-two ago, I was scheduled to board a flight from Boston to Los Angeles that later became a grim statistic of 9/11. I canceled my booking just days before and decided to make this trip after the holidays. I didn’t know then that this seemingly mundane action would become a monumental fork in my life’s path. As we are on the eve of the Yamim Noraim, it’s hard not to consider the religious implications—what if it was divinely decreed that my name was not to be inscribed in the Book of Death that year?

Survivor’s Guilt and the Tragedy of Unbearable Pain

For years, I successfully managed to compartmentalize the survivor’s guilt that gripped me since that fateful day on 9/11. It was a distant storm cloud on the horizon—always present but never quite enveloping me. I could function, I could laugh, and most importantly, I could live without constantly questioning why I was granted that privilege.

But recently, that guilty part has surged with a vengeance, as if years of suppression have only added fuel to its fire. The storm has arrived, and I find myself in its eye, where the air is heavy with questions without satisfactory answers. It’s a bewildering, disorienting place to be, particularly amid Yamim Noraim, the days when G-d determines who will live and who will die.

And then there’s the poignant reality that just yesterday was Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day—a stark reminder that while some struggle with the guilt of surviving, others are battling demons that make survival seem unbearable. My resurrected guilt crashes against this awareness like a wave against the shore, each receding tide leaving me more exposed, more vulnerable.

Both forms of suffering, although different, are torturous. Each magnifies the other, forcing me to confront the complex tapestry of human emotion that includes immense gratitude and heart-wrenching guilt, often in the same breath.

As I navigate the tumultuous waters of my 22,000th day, I am forced to sit with these complicated feelings. I don’t have the luxury of suppression anymore; the questions are too loud, the emotions too raw. Maybe they’re resurfacing now as a call to action, a push toward greater introspection, empathy, and community support—especially as we navigate the reflective season of Yamim Noraim.

The Irony of Free Will and Divine Will

The irony is haunting. On one end is the notion that our lives are part of a divine plan, and on the other end is the tragic reality that some feel they can’t bear to live despite that plan. Could it be that these contrasting perspectives serve as a reminder for us to recognize the profound struggles—both seen and unseen—that people are going through?

This Year – Let Us Choose to Be There For Each Other

As we navigate this season of Yamim Noraim, remember that it’s not just about praying for our names to be inscribed in the Book of Life but also about doing our part to make life bearable and meaningful for others. It’s a time to examine our pain and the pain of those around us. Sometimes, the best way we can be there for each other, as God is there for us, is by simply showing up—recognizing the signs of someone in agony and offering a listening ear or a helping hand.

What Comes Next?

So, on this 22,000th day of my life—a life that could have been cut drastically short—I’m doing my best to make a renewed commitment. I’m pledging to try and be more present for those in need and make each of my remaining days meaningful for others and hopefully for myself.

If you have ever had a moment that has caused you to rethink the value and fragility of life, today, I urge you to act. Reach out to those you love, pursue what gives your life meaning, and be aware of the struggles others may be experiencing and the divine opportunity to be a source of light in their lives.

As mentioned, I managed for years to keep my survivor’s guilt at bay, tucked away in some hidden chamber of my mind. But recently, this dormant guilt has erupted, not just creeping into my daily thoughts but engulfing them.

Compounding this resurgence are other traumas that life has thrown my way, each adding its weight, further intensifying the emotional tempest within me. Now, each trauma stands on its own and interacts with my survivor’s guilt, creating a complex web of emotions that’s increasingly hard to navigate. The accumulation of these burdens makes each day a complex journey through my own psyche, where each thought, each feeling, seems to collide with another in an unsettling noise.

All of this happens amid the solemnity of Yamim Noraim, when, according to tradition, G-d decides who will live and who will die. The timing couldn’t be more jarring. At a time when many are taking stock of their lives and praying for a good year ahead, I find myself grappling with a deluge of guilt and layered traumas, each amplifying the other.

During this deeply introspective season, when the air is thick with the weight of divine judgment, I’m forced to confront these painful questions with a newfound urgency. It’s a difficult place to be filled with contradictory emotions and spiritual conflict. I’m torn between gratitude for the life I’ve been given and overwhelming guilt for having it, all while wrestling with other traumas that add more dissonance to this emotional symphony.

If you’re reading this and find something that resonates within your emotional landscape, know you’re not alone. Life’s complexities often defy easy solutions or neat categorizations. And while we may not always find the answers to our most tormenting questions, we can still choose how we respond to them.

In this stormy season of my life, as I navigate my 22,000th day and the introspective journey of Yamim Noraim, my commitment is to search for ways to turn this tumultuous internal dialogue into meaningful action—for myself and others who may be wrestling with their storms.

If you’re struggling, I implore you to seek out those pockets of peace and moments of clarity that still exist amid the chaos. Reach out for help, offer help where you can, and let’s face the bewildering, disorienting storms together. Because sometimes, surviving isn’t just about living; it’s about finding meaning in the struggle and transforming it into a life worth living.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis
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