(photo credit: REUTERS)
A new year is upon us. One year chases another, one decade follows the next. Our lives unfold, our circumstances evolve, but how about us? Do we grow as well or are we stinted in our spiritual and emotional growth?
It is a probing question and one we should ask of no one but ourselves. As the old year rolls to a close and a New Year opens up, we ask ourselves how to move forward. What are the concrete steps that take us from childhood to maturity?
When we were younger we all had toys. Most of us had favorite toys and our entire world revolved around them. When we had them in hand we were content but if anyone took them from us we grew miserable and did our best to make everyone around us miserable too.
My new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose, points out that most of us don’t know what became of that favorite teddy bear or blankie that we loved as a child. If someone asked us what happened to our red toy fire-truck or beautiful little doll, we likely wouldn’t know. But somehow we also wouldn’t care. We have moved on and are no longer consumed with the things that worried us in our youth.
We have moved on, but have we matured? The definition of maturity is to be other-focused rather than self-focused. Today, more than ever, grown men and women take pride in their little gadgets and toys. We no longer worry about little dolls and fire trucks, but we have our Androids and iPhones with our favorite little apps. Should we lose them, we grow miserable. Should Facebook go down for several hours as it did on August 2 this year, social media would be abuzz, as it was that day, with contempt for Facebook.
Can we live without our toys or are we mired in the immaturity of youth?
Being able to let go of our favorite pastimes, to live without them and remain content when we can’t have them, is the definition of maturity. Life is more than the accumulation of possessions, homes and enjoyable moments. It is greater than the opportunity to have fun and be stimulated. Life is a platform on which we rise above ourselves.
When we willingly surrender our own comforts to share with another, we catch a glimpse of life’s treasures. When we are left without our usual crutches and retain our equilibrium, pitting ourselves against the world and placing our faith in G-d, we experience life‘s meaning. When we recognize that life is more about what we are needed for than what we need, we have found life’s purpose.
Living with purpose isn’t just a meaningful way to live, it’s also enjoyable. There is more joy to be gained from giving than taking. There is more happiness to be gleaned from bestowing than acquiring. Depriving ourselves from something that we perceive as important and learning that we are bigger than it, larger than we gave ourselves credit for, and capable of living without it, brings us face to face with our true selves.
It is how we discover the measure of our potential and learn the extent of our promise. It is the litmus test of maturity. It proves that we are greater than the self we thought we were.
This can’t be achieved in a day. Not even in a month, a year, a decade or a lifetime. It is a journey of small steps with no end goal. There is no way to tell precisely how selfless and how deep we will be on our last day. The only rule is this. Ensure that each day is deeper than the last and shallower than the next. Keep growing and never let up. In life there will always be ebbs and flows, but the general trajectory should be forward not backward, upward not downward.
To do this we need a plan. As Yom Kippur approaches we need to sit down and take inventory. What are the things or areas in my life that take up a disproportionate amount of my time? To what am I assigning more meaning and allocating more energy that it warrants? If I scale back in this area, how will I fill that time and with what will I replace that vice?
It is good to draw up a list and then form a plan. By Yom Kippur I want to prove that I can live without this. By Pesach I want to prove that I can adopt this or that new practice. By next Rosh Hashana, I want allocate this much of my income to charity. Establish short term goals and embark on the process of inner growth.
Line up a long-term goal that represents a serious sacrifice but is also a deeply meaningful achievement. For example, decide if you want to adopt a child in need or travel to a third world country to help people in need. Decide how much of your time you can volunteer to the local soup kitchen or how many tractates of Talmud you will study in the next decade. Most important, choose the parts of your day that you will sacrifice to make that happen.
In the beginning you will miss what you gave up. With time you will miss your old habits less and appreciate your new customs more. In the fullness of time you will wonder what attracted you to those old behaviors in the first place. Slowly you will grow and mature. You will never stop growing. You will never reach a final benchmark. But the goal is not to stop, the goal is simply to start.
With a New Year upon us, now is as good a time as ever.
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario.