Gratitude grows on turning fifty
Fifty is not old, but it is unmistakeably not young either. There is little one can achieve after fifty – not even death – and be considered to have done so at a "young’’ age. The traditional Jewish blessing "until a hundred and twenty’’ and the exploding number of centenarians notwithstanding, it is hard to tell oneself with conviction at fifty, "Well, half down and half to go.’’
Turning fifty forces one to confront the fact that few, if any, of the ambitions of youth will be realized. I will not be the first Jewish president, nor the first chareidi prime minister. At this point, I would settle for speaking Hebrew well enough to mix it up on Popolitika.
Yet if most of the dreams of youth have turned out to be impossible, there are compensations. Life at fifty has a past and a present, as well as a future. In place of hopes, there are also achievements. No matter how bad a botch I might make of the rest of my life, the seven books and hundreds of articles written over the last decade are on the shelf. What has been done cannot be undone.
(The same cannot be said for the children gathered around the Shabbos table. There does not seem to be an age limit on incompetent parenting.)
At fifty, the future is no longer a vast expanse. One’s horizons often extend no farther than the end of the month overdraft. One no longer anticipates a future of amazing adventures and unpredicted surprises. Short of Aharon Barak tapping me for the Supreme Court, I can think of few things that would really surprise me, and those that would, I hope never come to pass.
Childhood is a period of endless waiting for life to really begin; time passes very slowly. Today the passage of time seems to be constantly accelerating, as one of Tolstoy’s characters remarks, like a falling object crashing to earth.
As a child, I wondered constantly about who my wife would be and what she was doing at that particular moment. By fifty, one has hopefully met the love of one’s life and had a few good decades together. While I’m curious about who my children will marry and what my grandchildren will be like, the question does not obsess me (though how to pay for the weddings is beginning to).
Gone is the impatience for the future that etches each day of childhood indelibly in the memory in a way that the far more eventful years of adulthood are not. There is still a lot to look forward to before reaching "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.’’ Over the next decade, my wife and I can look forward to escorting, G-d-willing, at least half our children to the chuppah and to a trickle of grandchildren at the beginning of the decade turning to a stream at its end. But each of those events can be savored in due course. No need to rush things.
A FEW years ago, an 80-year-old John Glenn recapitulated his flight into space of nearly four decades earlier. All marvelled at his physical condition, and bestowed on him our society’s highest compliment: his body still functions like a much younger man.
The Jewish view, as explicated by the Maharal of Prague, is just the opposite. The respect that we pay to age is precisely because the physical forces are no longer what they once were. In youth, the physical forces of the body tend to dominate a person. We are thrall to unbidden impulses.
As those physical forces wane in power, that which is uniquely human about us – our soul – becomes ascendant. Our divinely granted intellect gains control over animal instincts. That is the wisdom we associate with old age, and why the Torah commands us to rise in respect for the elderly.
About the physical decline there can be no doubt. A good basketball game is no longer one in which my team wins or even in which I play well; it’s sufficient to be still breathing at the end. I find myself torturing my body on machines in ways that I would have thought ludicrous in the long ago days when I thought nothing of hours of tennis under a blistering sun and had never heard of declining muscle mass.
About the infusion of wisdom, there is more cause for doubt. Moments of brilliant insight do not yet strike with the same weekly regularity that they used come to Robert Young on Father Knows Best.
Sukkot, the holiday of gathering, is called the time of our rejoicing. It is the most joyous time of the year. The foundation of that rejoicing is gratitude, the recognition that no matter how much effort was expended in plowing and reaping, if G-d had not caused the winds to blow and the rains to fall all would have been for nought.
Gratitude is not an emotion of youth, which expects everything to come as a matter of right. As one grows older, however, so do the feelings of gratitude grow. Gratitude to one’s parents, whose efforts can finally be appreciated after one has been through the process oneself; gratitude to the many mentors, who gave of their knowledge to nurture raw novices; and gratitude to one’s spouse for tolerating what she does and being a partner in all that is most important in life.
And most of all gratitude to G-d, Who somehow contrived to create for me job which pays me to do all the things I enjoy most -- read, study, write, and talk to people – and Who, above all, revealed a world full of purpose and a path towards Him.
Just as Sukkot is the happiest time of the year, it no longer seems implausible, as it once would have, that what is yet to come will be the happiest time of life.