As he walked into the gym this morning, my personal trainer, Ofir, wore a radiant glow. The look on his face beckoned, "Go ahead and ask what''s on my mind." I obliged. He had made it to the finish line of the Tel Aviv Marathon, he announced, explaining the challenge that began with Pheidippides, the legendary Greek messenger who collapsed upon completing his 42 km journey between the ancient cities of Marathon and Athens. As a result of Ofir’s grueling training and subsequent accomplishment, his broad smile reflected gratification.
Gratification is not an everyday sensation. I probed Ofir to discover the last time he’d felt the emotion. After considerable thought, he recalled a time several years earlier when, following years of humiliation, his favorite soccer team had won the national championship.
Odd, I thought. The marathon effort had been entirely his own, while his experience of the soccer victory would have fallen somewhere between "vicarious" and "superficial." Ofir agreed that the situations, themselves, were different, but he insisted that, for him, the feelings had been quite similar. The massive emotional investment had paid off ultimately in gratification.
Reviewing my own experiences with gratification, I recalled a letter informing me that I had passed my cancer medicine specialty boards. Anyone who’d observed my giddiness surely would’ve concluded that I’d been smoking or drinking something in honor of the occasion. But I hadn’t. It was just that, in the moment, the culmination of long years of medical studies and residency training, I’d experienced intense gratification – not to mention thrill and relief at the prospect of never having to take another test in my life. (Or so I thought, until, despite my U.S. academic credentials, upon my arrival, Israel required me to take its grueling certification examination.)
Another instance of gratification for me came from accompanying our two older daughters towards the traditional Jewish marriage canopy ("chuppah"). On each of their respective wedding days, as I marched with my wife and daughter, I felt gratification at the milestone achieved through so much family effort and emotional support.
As you contemplate your own experiences of gratification, I’ll offer one more. Although now, I swim every day, I felt no comfort level in water until the age of seventeen. I’d probably never have learned to swim had the head of waterfront activities not taken an interest in me in the summer camp where I worked as a counselor back in 1977. His patience and teaching style led me to overcome a phobia that I''d harbored for years. After twenty-five daily lessons during the month of July, I could exult in my newfound ability to stay afloat. I felt profound gratification for myself and deep gratitude towards the swimming instructor.
In trying to understand the concept of gratification that comes from fulfilling one’s hopes or aspirations, I recall that the word “gratification” translates into Hebrew as seviyut ratson. Embedded in those two words is a sense of feeling intellectually or emotionally fulfilled as a result of achieving one’s hopes or aspirations rather than simply enjoying more shallow pursuits.
In that deeper sense, it does seem true that gratification is felt rather infrequently, but the emotion is intensely positive, so let’s consider how to cook up more gratification for ourselves. Gratification seems quite subjective. To achieve more of it, I think that each of us must determine the ingredients that we need for our own gratification recipe. Do we require a challenging task? Are we seeking to conquer the previously unconquerable? Is our ambition driving us to do something that no one else has ever done? I leave it up to you to create a shopping list for your own ingredients.
I once thought about training for a marathon, but "the scientist within" argued that human beings weren''t designed for such tasks (e.g., see Pheidippides above). A different type of marathon that I''d like to train for exists in the liturgy for the holiday of Yom Kippur.
I enjoy singing and performing as an amateur cantor in the synagogue. On Yom Kippur, there are five phases of prayers. I’ve led my congregations in three. I would find it intensely gratifying to learn the two remaining phases then to do all five on Yom Kippur while fasting – no bottled water or oranges allowed during this spiritual marathon. By all means, check back next year, to see whether I''ve managed to gratify that aspiration.
Until next Monday, Shalom.