(This article is dedicated to Jessica Sandler, whose birthday it is today. She indirectly inspired this article through a few conversations we had in the Fall of 2001. Happy birthday, Jessica.)
Much of the unhappiness we feel in our lives can often be significantly reduced and sometimes even eliminated when we think about that which we take for granted and give some real appreciation for it. This could be accomplished even by giving a thoughtful acknowledgement that it is there.
Good Health Used
The thing unfortunately most often taken for granted is our own health and wellbeing. Why does it take finding out that somebody close to us has cancer or is having heart problems to get us to appreciate that we are still healthy? Even minor health problems can bring about an appreciation of our own wellbeing.
There is a bracha (blessing) that observant Jews recite after using the restroom facilities. It essentially gives thanks that our various parts are functioning how they should, for there are many valves and other such openings without which we could not continue living. I try to say it with great concentration and devotion, for its significance is quite great – it is a way in which we can not take our health for granted.
When one is walking down the street and wishing they had a car, they instead could be extremely grateful that they have legs which can carry them where they want to go. A person hearing bad pop music on the radio (which, to my twenty-four year old ears, is just about all of it) can complain that there are so few bands like Ben Folds Five or Pearl Jam, or they can be thankful that they have the ability to hear music at all.
The same goes for many of our other senses and attributes, including a good sense of smell (always thought of when driving past Elizabeth, NJ), and even full lung capacity. A terrorist attack here in Jerusalem recently left one of the victims with only one functioning lung – everyday life is significantly altered in a matter of minutes.
A few nights ago I found myself coughing quite a bit, with a terribly runny nose. The next morning when I woke up I thought one of my roommates had turned our room into a Turkish bathhouse. My throat felt as though someone had taken a scouring pad and had run it up and down it.
Today, when I finally managed to locate the doctor’s office and I sat, waiting for him to see me, I reflected further on how we take our health for granted too often. Most people do not think to themselves, well it’s a good thing it’s not excruciatingly painful for me to swallow and I can breathe without too much trouble.
As I sit and write this, having failed to find either of the pharmacies the doctor told me to go to (poor direction-giving seems to be commonplace in Israel – it took asking about six people before someone could explain finding the doctor’s office.) I feel quite sensitive about my own health – but when I get better, will I continue to appreciate it so much? One can hope.
Friendly Grant Taking
In the last few weeks I was at Rutgers, Jessica told me that I would undoubtedly forget about her in Israel – I wouldn’t even remember her birthday, she insisted. Nonsense, I replied. Well, she said, we hardly talked now and I lived a few blocks away from her – how often could I possibly communicate with her when I’d be a gabillion miles away? (Distance approximated based on how far it feels now – New Jersey feels like it could be just as far from here as Pluto.)
True, I replied, but that’s because I’m here now, we can talk any time, and so… and so, it’s a lot easier to take people for granted when we can call them any time or walk a few roads and see them. When communication is difficult because of time zone differences and people become overwhelmed with schedules, one suddenly really appreciates any amount of communication one has with the person in question. That certainly is the case here.
Many people, myself included, spend so much time bemoaning how terribly lonely they can get instead of having some appreciation for the friends that they do have and the time they spend with those friends. Rare it is for a person to be like the comic character "The Mole Man," who was so ridiculed and insulted by everyone that he couldn’t make any friends, and thus had to turn to supervillianry instead. Most people have at least one or two really good friends, and a handful of casual acquaintances they talk to on a semi-regular basis. Problems often crop up when people don’t really appreciate each other, assuming that the other person will be there whenever they want them to.
This applies as well to people with whom we are merely friends. I can imagine it applies tenfold to the people to whom we are committed to spending our lives. I often hear when people are discussing reasons why marriages failed the key words "taken for granted" as in, "I felt like I was taken for granted – he didn’t appreciate me or anything I did for him." If I am not mistaken, the divorce rate in the United States hovers around 60%, which is rather pathetic I think. A little too much is taken for granted in relationships.
One can especially see how things are taken for granted in the material world. A person who complains that his apartment is too small has never slept a single cold, rainy night on the street. A person who is upset that the job he is getting has poor stock options clearly didn’t spend too much time unemployed. Since coming to Jerusalem I have spent on average about two meals per week with people who live around the area.
For the most part, they would be considered lower-class to poor – they barely get by with the salaries that they have. These are people who manage to live without such things as cars, expensive stereos, vacations to different parts of the world, televisions, computers, etc – and yet they are incredibly happy. These are families that open up their homes to complete strangers twice a week and give them a good hot meal (once one has eaten Yeshiva food for awhile, home meals are greatly appreciated), have children who learn, and know how to enjoy that which they have in life, materially and otherwise.
The next time you have to wait at a traffic light for the light to change and you get annoyed that you are a little delayed, give it a little thought. At least you are driving, have somewhere to be driving to, are healthy enough to get where you are going. I think a little acknowledgement to what we have is enough to make us at least a little happier, much more so in any case than bemoaning that which we lack.