In my own write: The greatest gift

Happiness – or something very near it – is within our grasp.

Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot – Ethics of the Fathers Areader from Netanya called last Friday to wish me a Happy New Year and then, unprompted, launched into a little speech that struck me afterwards as having great value.
More than that, it seemed to contain a couple of life’s important secrets.
“I’m 90 now,” she said, “and I never thought old age could be so rewarding. The dull routine of my boring life – there’s nothing routine about it. It’s an everyday miracle.”
While personality clearly plays a part in such a positive outlook, she conceded that her relatively good health was a significant factor.
“My hearing isn’t what it used to be,” she confessed, “nor my walking. My eyes are weak, and the stairs kill me. But, overall, I have a sense of gratitude that I can do everything I need to.
“I love being old,” she declared – a sentiment one doesn’t often come across. “Being 90 is like having a birthday every day.”
A COMMON thing one hears in the weeks building up to the New Year is how soon it’s come around again – too soon, is the implication. The year seems to have flown by. Where, we ask, did it go? The daily round, the endless must-do and mustacquire, takes up so much of our energy and attention that we tend not to take much note of the weeks and months passing. But when a landmark date like Rosh Hashana plants itself squarely in our path, it’s hard to avoid the reality.
And to many in our Western culture, that reality is dismaying, even threatening; the passing of time is, by definition, a downhill journey all the way. To them, the aging process is a thing to fear and ward off if one can; sometimes in rather ridiculous ways.
BUT NOT to that Post reader from Netanya.
Talking to her, I got the notion – almost a mental picture – that she had long ago put her ear to the ground, as it were, felt the pulsing rhythm of nature and decided to go with its flow. Consciously or unconsciously, she had attuned herself to its changing seasons and stayed in step.
And now, well-practiced in the dance, she had arrived at old age, at which point embracing it joyfully was simply the most natural thing for her to do.
Imagine if one felt little dread at the thought of growing old, if there wasn’t that constant battle – energetically fueled by the advertising industry and abetted by the media – to stave it off. Wouldn’t one settle more comfortably into one’s skin and be more open to what life (still) has to offer? Settling into one’s skin – young or old – doesn’t mean not “making the most of oneself,” as an aunt of mine used to call it: staying in shape, dressing becomingly and using, within reason, whatever is out there to make oneself look, and consequently feel, good.
But let’s get real. Modern Western society, infantile in many ways, worships youth and seems to disdain age – so I wonder how many seniors, like my Netanya reader, “love being old” and have the courage to say so.
MYSELF, the older I get, the more I’ve come to see each passing year as a badge of survival, and hence something to value greatly.
We live in truly “interesting times,” and the assumption that any individual life will continue is not a safe betting proposition. Perhaps it never has been. Our highways are too often death-traps, and our foes lie in wait for the vigilance of our security forces to relax. Even youth is no guarantee against serious illness.
When we do, nevertheless, make it through yet another year, that is not so much a matter for self-congratulation as it is reason to be thankful.
WHICH brings me to my lovely caller’s second important secret: the ability to feel gratitude. “It’s the key to a good life,” a friend commented when I told her about my Friday conversation.
I agree: because when one is grateful for what one has, one is looking at the half of the glass that is full and not, as it is often tempting to do, at the dismally empty half.
“Gratitude is empowering,” commented another close friend. She has some serious health challenges, but is sparkling company and her laugh is contagious.
She continued simply: “I’ve always seen myself as being very fortunate. Gratitude focuses on what I’m gaining, as opposed to what I’m losing.”
No one has everything they would wish for – or, indeed, sometimes even much of it. But there is always the choice of where to aim the spotlight: on what life has given us, or on what it has withheld.
To that extent, and provided we are not incurable pessimists, happiness – or something very near it – is within our grasp.
IT ISN’T until something goes wrong with one’s body that one realizes how blithely one assumed it would always go on giving good service, like a loyal servant constantly on duty.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslav said we should talk to our limbs every day and thank them for working so hard for us.
That advice isn’t as weird as it may sound; it says a lot about attitude, and about gratitude.
It’s especially difficult for young people not to take their health for granted. Too much is going on in their lives for them to reflect on something so self-evident as their physical well-being – until something happens.
A young friend of mine is still suffering considerable pain and weakness from overuse of her hand and wrist during several weeks of waitressing three months ago; the good to come out of that sobering experience is the likelihood that she won’t in future be so complacent about her body’s efficient functioning.
PERHAPS this is a good time of year to reflect on the need to express gratitude as often as we can: to family and friends for being there for us; to people who’ve helped us when we needed it; and – here’s a personal peeve – to people who’ve given us gifts.
I’m thinking specifically of weddings and bar mitzvas I’ve attended where I’ve placed a carefully chosen present – or check – into the receptacle provided... and never heard anything more.
When a gift isn’t acknowledged, it loses value.
It isn’t that I need effusive expressions of thanks; more a recognition of something given and received, the complementary gesture to mine.
I’ve lost count of the times my gifts have remained unacknowledged, but I’ve been glad, increasingly, to receive little notes, sometimes in a touchingly childish hand, saying, “Thank you so much for....”
It takes work to write thank-yous to 100 or more guests, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It is part of what parents need to teach their children.
WITH Rosh Hashana on the doorstep, storeowners have packed their premises full of shiny and luxurious items they are counting on us to buy as presents to be given on the festival. And, dutifully, we are complying, as we do every year.
But there’s one item you won’t find in any store or catalogue – in fact, you won’t find it for sale anywhere. It’s well worth acquiring, however. It’s called the gift of gratitude.
My reader in Netanya knows all about it.