Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Lost Joy

We are lucky enough to live in the lottery winner of civilizations. Our standard of living eclipses that of previous generations. Dreaded illnesses have been banished forever, and life expectancy has gone up by thirty years in the last century. Luxuries that were inconceivable fifty years ago are now the birthright of the middle class.

The past was a lot different. People in my parent’s generation grew up in a world of wars, financial depressions, and inferior medical care. These difficulties shaped their lives and left their scars. One man I knew, who had no money as a child, remained a miser long after he had achieved exceptional wealth. Another survivor I knew, traumatized by the hunger he endured, left caches of food and money all around his house. Adversity leaves a bitter imprint, tattooing antique worries into our hearts.

Thankfully, today we live in an era of exceptional abundance and tranquility; my kids have been vaccinated against a slew of afflictions, will never be drafted into the army, and generally worry most about if and when they will be getting a new electronic gadget.

Every day, we must remind ourselves to appreciate these remarkable blessings, and thank God for our bounty. But for the most part, there is one blessing our generation has been denied: the joy of triumph.

A true triumph is when one has overcome existential challenges. Alongside the painful memories of suffering lies a fierce pride, a profound self-respect built on courage and determination.

One woman I knew, who was disabled as a child by polio, refused to allow her disability to define her life. She lived a life of courage, determination and love, and served as inspiration to a multitude of people, including myself. She had become the exceptional person she was despite her difficulties, but also because of them; she had passed life’s tests. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the Hebrew word for test, “nissah” is related to the Hebrew word to raise up, “nasso”. This is because a test is not meant to merely be endured, but rather to raise one up to a higher plane. And there is nothing sweeter than passing life’s tests.

Today, one can observe the joy of triumph at select celebrations such as weddings. The grandparents or great grandparents speak a European accented English, and simultaneously have a tear and a twinkle in their eyes. They are graduates of university of life, and sometimes have a six digit diploma tattooed on their arms. They tell you that the bride is named after a sister who didn’t make it, and then they ask you to make a l’chaim, a toast, to the future of the young couple. This toast is different than any other toast, because it has a message of determination that says: “damn you Hitler, we’re still here”. And as you raise your glass, you realize that the smile on the grandfather’s face is unique: it’s the smile of triumph.

Those of us who have lived privileged North American lives will never experience that smile, because a test free life is a triumph free life. That's how it should be, because God forbid, no one should ever desire the anguish of tests; and in the end, far too many fail their tests. Indeed, if you asked the smiling grandparent at the wedding, they’d tell you their deepest wish is for all of us to live lives of peace and tranquility.

No, we will never know the joy of triumph. But if we look in the right places, for a few fleeting moments, we too can share that smile of triumph, a triumph earned by blood, sweat, and tears.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

My New Hero

I don't even know my new hero's name. She isn't a famous movie star or a politician. Actually, I’ve only met my hero once, serving coffee at the Second Cup where she works.

But she's my hero anyway, because like all heroes, this big hearted barista had a mission: to put a smile on everyone's face. I had run into her cafe hurried and stressed, looking for a quick caffeine fix between meetings; and to be honest, like most other customers, I was a lot less congenial than I should have been. Yet this woman accepted my order gracefully, and with just a few kind words managed to make me smile. This hero had made a difference in my day; and she certainly makes a daily difference in the lives of her customers as well.

Now, calling this cheerful coffee salesclerk a “hero” might seem like a gross exaggeration to you; but I am dead serious about what I’m saying. Yes, I’m sure you agree with the Mishna in Pirkei Avot that we should greet people with a pleasant face; after all, that’s how our mothers raised us. But frankly, there’s a lot more than manners at stake here.

Smiles are in short supply nowadays. People are far more busy and stressed than they were fifty years ago. (Why that is is a topic for another time). Socially, we are cut off from everyone except for those who are closest to us. True “neighbourhoods”, where people actually know their neighbours, no longer exist. Even in the suburbs, people are unable to name most of their neighbours; people may live next door to each other, but they aren’t next door neighbours. We have retreated into well insulated cocoons, entertained by the flickering screens of the electronic age, communicating virtually with virtually everyone, but truly knowing virtually no one. True community spirit, with a sense of being connected to those who surround us, has disappeared nearly everywhere.

Along with the collapse of community has come the collapse of civility. There’s simply no time to say hello; after all, we have to get down to business. People chatter away on cellphones while standing on line, and the polite banter of strangers only occurs when two people are simultaneously between calls. E-mail is even worse; the linguistic structure of e-mail has the ambience of firefighters shouting to each other during a four alarm fire. Greetings, even first names, are omitted, leaving only a blunt request, sometimes delivered in caps, demanding of us to “CALL JIM NOW”. Frankly, we are stretching the social fabric a bit too thin, and we are witnessing an epidemic of grumpiness.

And grumpiness makes a difference. I remember being stunned when a former Member of Parliament, discussing his life in politics, told me that at times legislation, even the course of governments, are deeply affected by the moods of the leaders. A Prime Minister arrives one morning in foul mood because he had a fight with his wife, and all of a sudden, initiatives are upended, ministers are demoted. Grumpiness is not just a mood; it can change history. And much like the famed “butterfly effect”, (that a butterfly flapping its wings can change to course of the weather) a simple lack of civility can have far reaching consequences as well.

And that’s why this barista is my hero. By putting a smile on the faces of her customers, she has pushed back against the impolite and impersonal. And with her cheerful countenance, she has made difference; after all, even one smile can create a hurricane of kindness.