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.

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