Thursday, Apr 11, 2024

IN A PERFECT WORLD

 

An Elusive Commodity

As I pondered the choice of a topic for this week’s column, I thought that maybe I’d write about that magical, forever-sought elixir that we call happiness. Mainly, I wanted to discuss why it is that, although we all long for happiness, we so often let it slip right through our fingers.

Then, in a beautiful non-coincidence, this week my family and I paid a visit to the Skulener Rebbe, here on a visit to Baltimore with his family. Our goal in coming was to ask for brachos. What we came away with was so much more. Yes, we received the beautiful blessings we’d asked for, sensitively and warmly delivered. But the rebbe also waxed eloquently on a topic which, as I said, has been uppermost in my thoughts recently. He spoke about simcha. In other words, happiness.

The rebbe indicated that being b’simcha is something that a person needs to work on. More, it’s something that’s very much worth working on. Maybe that’s why happiness is a commodity that so often eludes us. It’s not necessarily going to come knocking on our door. Keeping it around as a full-time visitor takes work.

It’s easy to feel on top of the world when something monumental happens. How can the winner of one’s personal life lottery do anything but beam with joy? But here’s my question. Why is it that, no matter how genuinely happy we are about something, there are two things that inevitably happen in short order?

First: we find one little detail in the enormous landscape of the joyous event that was not to our liking. The flowers in the centerpieces were the wrong shade of pink. The appetizer at the seudah was overdone. The shoes you thought were perfect proved otherwise… and so on. Focusing on these annoying details of imperfection, we slide away from the big picture of happiness. It’s as if, by bringing those small imperfections right up to our eyes for closer observation, we block out the huge simcha standing right behind them.

The second thing that we tend to do is… I know this will sound silly. We forget to be happy.

Seems crazy, right? Just a short time ago, a particular salvation stood at the top of our list of things that would send us over the moon. We couldn’t imagine a greater joy than achieving that pinnacle, embracing that long-awaited dream.

And we do feel joy… for a while. Until life and its mundane chores and obligations steps in to push it into the background. Until those niggling annoyances begin to crop up like weeds after a good rain, pushing the happiness even further back.

Until, caught up in the tangled business of day-to-day, we simply… forget to be happy.

 

The New Normal

Remember the last time you were in pain? A bad sprain, a deep cut, an excruciating toothache? Even more, remember when you were suffering emotional pain or an existential ache?

Boruch Hashem, the suffering is over. The ankle that was sprained last month is pain-free. The once-bleeding arm is good as new and that agonizing tooth has been put out of its misery. Your emotional angst, once overwhelming, is a thing of the past. Whatever the pain was, it’s gone away. Now that the suffering is over, we should be dancing with joy at the mere fact that we are pain-free. Because that’s no small thing.

And yet, somehow, it, too, has a way of diminishing and eventually disappearing. Once the tzorah has passed, we soar on a wave of momentary, joyous relief… and then move on into the new normal, where pain is no longer a factor and the suffering is behind us. We forget that we were ever in pain. And so, we forget to be happy.

I remember once being picked up and given a ride by someone I knew only slightly. She was smiling from ear to ear as she drove, proclaiming, “I’m so happy I was given this opportunity to do a chesed!” Now, I won’t deny that this was a tad irritating. I had a sense that she didn’t really see me, but only the label on my forehead that said Chesed Opportunity. Still, I couldn’t help admiring her ability to tap into the happiness of the occasion. She was fully mindful, fully in the moment, fully cognizant of what was happening and why it made her feel so good.

That’s something we could all benefit from learning how to do. All too often, the satisfaction and pleasure that we deserve to feel gets lost, buried under a million other thoughts and distractions. How many times a week, when dishing out breakfasts, lunches, and suppers, do you stop to tell yourself: “I’m doing a chesed for my husband and children right now. That makes me feel awesome!”

Instead of relishing the moment and the happiness that it ought to bring, we let the good feeling drown in a sea of unmindful routine. We move around like automatons, detached from our own, well-earned wellspring of joy. What a pity!

 

Nerdy?

There’s something else that blocks us from tapping into this kind of mundane happiness. Nobody minds reveling openly over the big things. But to express joy over the ordinary things, over the simple fact that you have a working body, a devoted family, a roof over your head and a mind and heart to appreciate them all, seems somehow nerdy. We live in a hard-boiled society, where cynical laughter trumps wide-eyed wonder every time.

Also, many of us have an almost superstitious fear of being too openly happy. As if we’ll somehow jinx ourselves if we recognize how good we really have it. Grumbling seems like useful camouflage. After a while, though, the grumbling can make us lose touch with the happiness.

As the Skulener Rebbe so emphatically pointed out, being b’simcha is our avodah. Much as we perpetually seek this friend, it continues to elude us. The first thing we need to do is recognize that the goal is to be happy all the time. It takes repeated exercise and dedicated practice to catch hold of the elusive happiness, and make it stay.

Why should we celebrate only at the high-water marks like marriage, childbirth, and award-winning accomplishments? If you still have that husband today, or that child, or that accomplishment tucked under your belt—that’s a cause for celebration. We should be bubbling over with joy, not only at the moment of salvation, but afterward, too. Every single minute of every single day!

 

A Shining Light

When we experience dark and troubled times, either personally or communally, there is a natural suppression of inner joy. But that doesn’t mean that the joy is not still there, waiting patiently, fed by hope and the memory of past salvations. We need to be able to taste the yeshuah that’s waiting in the wings. Maybe it won’t come in the exact form that we wanted or expected. But light does shine again after darkness. Always.

And in ordinary times, when happiness need not be suppressed or pushed into the background, our inner joy should be vibrant! It ought to spill out of us constantly, an unwavering beacon of light shining through everything. A smile that never falters.

In truth, if we were to start tallying up all the reasons why we ought to be happy, starting with the mere fact that we’re breathing and that we have the unbelievable privilege of being the hand-picked beloved of the Creator of everything, we’d have no time left over for anything else. Few of us have the luxury of that much time. But that’s no excuse for not trying.

“Are you telling me that I should be happy right now, this minute, just because the tooth that was killing me last year doesn’t hurt anymore?” you may ask incredulously.

Exactly.

 

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