Getting There

My daughter, who was volunteering in a rehab hospital, was asked to go to a certain patient’s room and fetch his “heart pillow.”

The patient was recovering from heart surgery and coughing was very painful for him. The hospital had given him a bright red, heart-shaped pillow to clutch to his chest whenever he felt a coughing fit coming. The pressure of the pillow on the outside was supposed to ease the ache on the inside.

In her usual upbeat way, my daughter tried to cheer up the rather gloomy patient. “What a pretty pillow!” she exclaimed as she handed it to him. “It’s so bright and cheerful.”

The man looked at the pillow and sighed.

“Maybe,” he said. “But I sure didn’t like what I had to do to get it.”

All of which got me thinking about roads and destinations, or, if you will, about processes and goals. Because, as everybody knows, these are two very separate entities.

There are things that we all want, collectively and as individuals. We want to be good people. We want to serve Hashem with all our hearts. We want to see success in our marriages, with our children, in our careers. There’s no ambiguity about where we’d like to be. For many, it’s the process of getting there that poses the problem.

The patient in our story has a pretty pillow, but it came at the cost of open-heart surgery. That’s a pretty hefty price tag. I’m certainly not advocating having an operation to pay the price of a pillow! But what about an operation to pay the price of a healthy life?

This patient’s case is not truly representative of my point here, because serious surgery is not usually optional. But there are many situations in life when a course of action is a matter of choice. Free choice. Our choice. How often do we turn away from worthwhile goals because the road required to get there seems too arduous?

Here are a couple of examples:

Joe wants to be a doctor. But the road to the fancy office with the diploma on the wall, not to mention all those grateful patients and the money in the bank, is a long and difficult one. There’s simply no way of getting from Point A (Joe as an ordinary high-school graduate) to Point B (Dr. Joe, with the diploma and the illustrious career) without a lot of expense and plenty of hard work.

Will Joe do it? Will he launch himself on the path to his goal or shrug his shoulders and give up the dream because it seems too long and too hard?

If he does embark on the journey, will he do so with joy or will he hate every minute? Does he embrace only the goal, or the process as well?

Penny is about thirty pounds overweight and she loathes every extraneous ounce. She longs to look good in her clothes, feel light on her feet, even garner a bit of admiration. But the road to Point B, Penny at her target weight, is fraught with painful deprivation. No more ice cream in the summer or cookies at night. Farewell to cake; so long, kugel. She’s looking at a future of counting calories and carbs. Will the process dissuade her from pursuing her dream?

It’s one thing to adopt a goal. That’s the easy part; human beings are wired to aspire. But achieving that goal is not the only aspect that has the power to make us happy. We have to also find joy in every step along the way.

•••

Tal Ben-Shachar is a well-known author and Harvard lecturer whose favorite topic is happiness. He became intrigued by the subject after winning an athletic competition toward which he’d worked for months. Receiving that trophy naturally put him on a real high. For the space of a few hours, he was jubilant. Euphoric. On top of the world.

But then something interesting happened. The euphoria faded, and he was left with a feeling of emptiness. He realized that it’s not the being there that makes a person happy, but the process of getting there.

If you want to enjoy life, you have to find a way to enjoy not only the goals you achieve, but also the process of achieving them. Because the goal may be very distant. It may lie at the end of a long and sometimes difficult road.

Why reserve your happiness only for the very end?

•••

Sometimes the goal is so vivid, so full of light, that we can’t tear our eyes away from it long enough to take pleasure in what it takes to reach it. Things like getting married, finishing Shas, or having your first book published. But the lion’s share of our time is spent slogging toward the goal line, not standing in triumph inside it. We have to try to find happiness in the work it takes to get there, or we’ll be very dry, joyless creatures indeed.

I know someone who, when he became engaged, was naturally on cloud nine. There was only one thing marring his happiness. “Now I won’t be able to date anymore…”

I venture to guess that there are plenty of singles out there who would gladly dispense with the need to set up meetings with total strangers for the purpose of finding a partner in life. The goal, obviously, is the happy-ever-after of marriage. But here was one fellow who, while keeping his eye on the goal, found plenty to enjoy in the process as well. Instead of grumbling his way through the necessary dating, he found things to enjoy about it.

The same can hold true of any endeavor. Based on a person’s temperament, different people may enjoy some things more than others. But there’s nothing stopping any of us from cultivating pleasure in anything we do. Like so much in life, it’s all about attitude.

Speaking personally, there’s nothing like the high of finishing a book… except the daily high of writing it. If I didn’t find pleasure in imagining characters, devising plotlines and fashioning words, I probably wouldn’t be an author. I refuse to suffer along a miserable road merely for the sake of reaching the destination. Holding my published book in my hand is undeniably a marvelous feeling, but I don’t see why I can’t also enjoy every step along the way!

Sure, you hope to see tremendous nachas from your kids one day, but doesn’t it make sense to work on taking tremendous pleasure from who they are right now? By all means, set your sights on the mountain peak lying in the mists of the future, but don’t neglect the lower-altitude stages along the way. The recipe for daily happiness is to relish not only on the longed-for peak, but every single step of the climb.

Happiness is not just the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With the proper attitude, every paving-stone along the road can be made of gold, too. That’s very good news, because the road is where we’re fated to spend most of our time!