The unbelievable happened: I became an octogenarian. Yesterday felt the same as every other day, and today did not feel any different. However, I observed that people look at me with a certain reverence that was not there yesterday. Do I really deserve that reverence? I do not act or feel different, or know today more than yesterday, yet there is a certain bias to look at the chronological age as if it were a great achievement. Chronological age is just that, it is not something that we create or control. However, how we take care of our physical and emotional needs contributes to how we function at any particular age.
I will always remember my father’s story about the longevity research study in which the scientists wanted to determine what caused people to live longer. They brought together people who looked wrinkled and frail and asked each one how they lived. One woman said she lived always together with the family, and took care of everyone, did not drink liquor, and only smoked occasionally some grass – even now at age 85 she was still getting up to prepare breakfast for her entire family. The old man came next, and said he drank a glass of red wine every day, slept through the night after walking up to the top of the mountain to watch the sunset; his wife had died 10 years previously, but he married again and his new wife was pregnant. He was expecting a new child at age 95. Next came a very wrinkled and bent-over man, dragging his feet, who with real bravado declared: “I eat anything I feel like, drink till I can no longer stand on my feet, and smoke 4 packs of cigarettes a day.” The scientist was truly amazed and asked “and how old are you?” “Forty-five,” he answered.
I find that one of the things that keeps me going is the determination to live fully no matter what comes my way. To live with joy and curiosity, fill my life with wonder and creativity. I learned to accept myself with all my frailties and never to stop caring about people. Connection is one of the basic needs we humans crave in order to thrive. We need to cultivate those connections and work hard to maintain them so that we can benefit ourselves and others. Loving kindness and compassion are important elements in our self-respect and the respect of our fellow travelers in this lifetime. I cherish every day and marvel at the gifts I was given rather than the traumas that came my way. It is not that I ignore the traumas and hardships, but I try to decipher and turn them into learning opportunities. My father used to call some disasters “Rebbe Gelt” (tuition). If we truly learn from our hardships and mistakes, then the price was worthwhile. I admit, it is pretty dumb to have to suffer in order to learn a lesson, but it is pretty smart to be able to learn the lessons.
So what lessons have I learned from the many dumb mistakes and painful traumas in my life? First of all, not to blame myself and not to beat myself up. It is written “For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again” (Proverbs 24:16). I do not presume to be righteous, but the meaning of righteous here is a person who overcame hardships and destruction, and was able to rebuild. I find that this is also the way we become resilient. When trauma occurs it is like a blow that scatters all our parts, and when we act to find all the pieces and rebuild ourselves, we realize that we can organize our parts in different ways and still function, sometimes even better than before – but it will never be like it was. So when we fall again, it is easier to believe that we can actually do it, since we managed previously. This time it may be even slightly easier, and the result more satisfying. And so it goes: every time we fall, we know we will be able to get up and continue. We may need some help occasionally, including physical aids, but there may be some benefits as well.
I was told that in order to be positive-thinking and resilient you also need to know where to buy your jeans. It is true that the environment you grow up in influences your way of looking at life. My heritage is a home that always was full of plenty even when we did not have much. The example was of song and jokes and stories amid the tears and pain. When I see all the suffering and the cruelty that some of my clients have had to deal with and encounter the horrors in the world, I realize how lucky I am. I am surrounded by love and warm acceptance. I have such riches of children, their spouses, and grandchildren who are independent and open and loving and caring. And most valuable to me, a spouse who is my best friend and lover with whom I can share my joys and my pains, and who cares for me and gives me love and devotion.
I know it is not in my or anyone’s power to determine how much longer we will be on this earth. I have so many more things I plan to accomplish, write, paint, … I want to create beauty, sing, and enjoy every minute of every day. Perhaps even to see great-grandchildren, so I must look after this body of mine. Nurture it with the right food, keep it flexible with swimming and Qigong with which it thrives. Keep my cultural life vibrant with learning, my professional life full of activity and refreshed knowledge. Keep my soul nourished with music, art and nature, and above all be open to the beauty of the world and people without forgetting about the ugliness and the pain. Being there for myself, my loved ones, my many friends, … and open to the world.
Normally I do not write the entire blog about myself, but after all it is my day. To become an octogenarian, or as I prefer the Hebrew term, “Gvurot”, i.e. having reached heroic heights, which is after all not a bad accomplishment. Especially in a relatively fair health of spirit, soul, and body. Perhaps I will take the opportunity again in 10 years’ time when I become, as they say in Hebrew “90 Lasuach” (at 90 – a person of leisure). Then perhaps I will travel the world and post photos and stories from my adventures. Please join me and stay the course.