Realistic operational optimism: I have not been reborn yet

"[My] resolution for the time when I am finally reborn is: I will not live with a 'sand clock' telling me what I can and cannot do."

May 30, 2013 22:43
Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres 370. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

Our fascination with President Shimon Peres’s advanced age – almost 90 years – is amplified by his fountain of unending energy, vigor and, most of all, fresh ideas, initiatives, charming diligence and the balanced integration of ageearned experience, wisdom and future-oriented outlook.

That reminds me of a lesson that I learned from a Jewish colleague in the US. Dr. S. Mouchley Small, a University of Buffalo professor emeritus of psychiatry, noted that one practical advantage of being Jewish in America is that you have two dates of birth, the general Gregorian one and the Jewish date. In most years, the two do not overlap.

Therefore, he was celebrating “the birth period”– which is the time between the two dates – the longer, the better. His wife did not like it, jokingly complaining about his being a “spoiled kid.”

The “kid” took his lively philosophy further. In his late ’70s, he started making plans for his bar mitzva. In Mouchley’s perspective of Jewish life, man’s designated longevity is 70 years. At that age, you are reborn for your second round and at the age of 83 years, you celebrate your second bar mitzva.

This vibrant bon vivant, mentally sharp, optimistic giant designated his wife to be in charge of all “bread and butter” arrangements of the anticipated huge celebration.

She was not very excited about it, to say the least. Alas, he passed away shortly after he shared his plans with me. May his memory be blessed and inspire the living.

I, for one, believe, think and act according to that concept. Since I am still in my 60s, I have not been reborn yet. Once I am 70 years old, I may or may not look forward to what Jewish life expectancy is – 120 years.

This was Moses’s age when he climbed Mount Nebo to accept his punishment, which was not to enter the Promised Land after shepherding his people for 40 years in the desert. Moses was 80 years old when he led the Israelites out of slavery to physical and spiritual freedom.

He was innovative, vigorous, forceful, determined and wisely consistent. In his 80-120-year period of life, he created a free nation in the face of extreme adversities, leading his people in triumphant internal and external battles.

Three issues are of interest in this context. Two are in the past and one is a future-forward process.

First, in the Book of Genesis (6:3), the determination of life expectancy as being 120 years is generalized for all mankind. It is actually a compromise: Following the union of “the sons of God” with “the daughters of Adam,” future offspring will not live longer.

Second, the writer of the Bible knew that women live longer than men. Sarah, the first matriarch, lived 127 years and set the pace for her daughters to follow.

Third, and looking toward the future, we are constantly moving closer to the 120-127 milestone.

Life expectancy doubled during the past century. We are learning of increasing number of centenarians, though real progress will be when reaching the age of 120 years will not be newsworthy.

Gerontologists still warn us that “aging “is a sort of disease. At a certain age, everybody is destined to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia, cardio- vascular disorders, cancers and other unfortunate maladies.

This prediction, of course, increases the gerontologists’ “market” and, therefore, their importance.

In reality, they are important because they help to expand the number of good, happy and productive years people live.

Where will gerontologists’ patients be referred when all of us reach 120 years? In the old Jewish tradition, reaching the advanced age of 70 years was desirable because that represented achieving respect for experience and wisdom. We read in the Passover Haggada that when the great sages of the Mishna were sitting for the Seder and discussing the Exodus as well as events of their time, one of them – Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria – said that he had to be considered as if he were 70 years old in order to be listened to and be accepted as a spiritual leader.

Wisdom, the ability to apply it and teach it, is the key, and not the chronological age. There is no “too young” or “too old” for a task. The individual’s attitude and ability are what really matter.

Societal attitudes toward the “elderly” are also apparent in academia, which is supposedly the industry of knowledge and new ideas. It is unclear to me why anybody believes that suddenly, at the arbitrary age of 67 (and sometimes even 65), an intellectual’s mind is considered inferior overnight.

Maybe he or she wishes to retire and enjoy the “golden age,” but in many cases people do not wish to slow down. They are completely capable of contributing their experience- earned wisdom.

Bureaucracies in Israel tend to imitate American ways. The approach to people over 65 is one such example, but it should be the contrary.

Israel is a refuge for any Jew by virtue of being Jewish. Just imagine how many 65-year-old American and Western European Jews are annually expelled from academic institutions, hospitals, commercial corporations and cultural entities. Many of them possess dynamic minds; they do not wish to be put to pasture.

Financially, many are financially comfortable. They wish not to be a burden – just the opposite.

Many people – the exact numbers are subject to the intensity and efficiency of marketing – may be challenged enough to participate in “focused brain trusts,” pursuing projects within their expertise and interests. The participants will be teachers and mentors, educating toward the realization of fresh ideas.

The qualifying test for acceptance into a brain trust would be the demonstration of dynamic attitudes by responding to the pioneering challenge of starting something new and following it up. The compensation would depend on work and output.

Experienced olim should encourage their offspring to follow in their footsteps. They will then help change prevalent attitudes.

Currently, when a wise person qualified to join the retirees’ lobby initiates a long-term project for the next 20 to 30 years, the initial response may be, “Are you crazy? You will not see the fruits of your efforts!” Indeed, the contract with the Almighty is one-sided. He knows when your day comes, but you do not. Like any other being, I may die today in this fleeting moment, or stay on Earth for the next 30 years. And, God willing, maybe even until 120.

With our consistently improving biomedical knowledge, many of these years can be productive and happy.

So, my resolution for the time when I am finally reborn is: I will not live with a “sand clock” telling me what I can and cannot do.

I will strive to be creative, innovative and show initiative with the knowledge that tomorrow is certain.

I will realize that the cumulative past does not taint optimism. It makes it realistic and helps to make it operational.

The writer is chairman of the WPA Section on Interdisciplinary Collaboration, chairman of PEMRN and professor and director of BioBehavioral Research in SUNY-AB. He is currently a Fulbright scholar for MENA regional studies. The opinions expressed here are his own, and do not reflect and are not endorsed by the Fulbright Program or any other US agency.

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