Rabbi's Bulletin December 2018

GRATITUDE IN OLD AGE

No one I know cultivates gratitude more faithfully than my mother, who turns ninety this week. Maybe it’s because of the time she lay helplessly on the African veld with fractured ribs (having been thrown from a horse), vultures were circling overhead, and she thought she was going to die then and there. She has greeted every morning since as an undeserved gift. Taking to the slopes last year, she praised God that her body still allowed her to engage her greatest athletic passion. When she finally put away her skis at the end of the season, she acknowledged it might be last time. Now that she broke her elbow four weeks ago, only Hashem knows when she will ski again. Meanwhile, she has reveled in each small measure of recovery: the joyful liberation of having the cast removed, or the first time she could wash her own hair without assistance.

The medieval Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda taught that although every person at every stage of life benefits from innumerable gifts, we tend to suffer a kind of blindness that blocks us from recognizing them. There are several basic reasons for this: we endlessly and compulsively pursue material pleasures—which can never be satisfied, leaving us in a constant state of want; we are so used to our blessings that we don’t notice them anymore, but take just one thing away and we quickly realize how much we took it for granted; we focus on challenges and afflictions to the exclusion of all that is going well in our lives. To counter these three tendencies, we should seek contentment in what we have as opposed to ruing what we lack, form the habit of enumerating even commonplace experiences in our lives as if noticing them for the first time, and express our appreciation directly to others at every turn for their kindnesses. 

Rabbi Bachya’s guidance is as relevant in the 21stcentury as when he wrote it. He reminds us that gratitude is a practice rather than a feeling. He admonishes us not to wait around passively until the sensation of appreciation spontaneously washes over us.  Instead, we are to train ourselves to articulate gratitude—out loud and with words—not just when we’re in a good mood but especially when the impulse to give thanks is absent.

One might think that as we age—as strength declines, as the horizon narrows, as personal autonomy erodes—there is less to be grateful about. However, the reverse is also possible. Restrictions and limitations can serve to increase appreciation for the pleasures and freedoms that still remain. As one elderly blogger puts it: “When we strip away the prizes of youth—the achievements, the possessions, the positions held, the money earned—can there still be joy? Yes, but one has to look in different places. It may be less in competing for the next prize and more in enjoying simple moments of contentment and connection with others.”

There are several faculties that never diminish with age: thecapacity for wonder, the wisdom that comes with experience, and the evolution of the spirit. One supreme imperative operates at all times for the human being, no less than for the blade of grass: “Grow! Grow!” Another sage, the Alter Rebbe of Slabodka, wrote: “if one would only hold in the mind’s eye the taste of sheer pleasure at one’s continued growth, then, even at the last moment of one’s final day, one would still feel the joy of the infant who takes her first step.” 

We don’t have to wait until old age before preparing for it. After all, it is unlikely that we will reshape, at the eleventh hour, attitudes and behaviors honed throughout a lifetime. Rather, we are bound to deal with infirmity and encroaching death the same way we have faced other acute challenges. If we constantly struggle with discontents and rail against our own deficiencies, we may approach the last stage of life with desperation and regret. On the other hand, by practicing gratitude daily for the ordinary and extraordinary gifts we possess, we are likely to bid farewell to all of them, when the time comes, with thanksgiving and joy—just as King David did on his deathbed in Arthur Honegger’s symphonic oratorio Le Roi David:

Oh, cette vie était belle si belle! Je Te bénis, Toi qui me l’as donnée! “Oh, this life was beautiful, so beautiful! I bless You, You who gave it to me.”