Because I Chose To Be
On a recent trip to the United States, I was invited for a leil Shabbos meal by the son of a good friend of mine. (You know that you are getting old when it does not seem strange to be invited for a meal by friend’s children.)
The evening’s conversation was wide-ranging, though much centered on why this particular young man felt as soon as he landed at Kennedy Airport at 18 that he would never return to live in his native Israel.
As I was putting on my overcoat to leave, he related that he had once asked his father how it was that he seemed so comfortable with all his children despite their great differences from one another – some are in full-time learning, others in business or klal work; some live in Israel; others in America. His father answered him succinctly: “Because I chose to be.”
That struck me as another example of the great wisdom I have heard from my friend over the past quarter century. As parents, the temptation to live vicariously through our children is constant. If we have had successes in life, we want them to be successful in the same way. And if we have suffered disappointments, we hope for their accomplishments to erase those disappointments.
How many young men do we see harmed by their father’s insistence on pushing them into prestigious yeshivos for which they are ill-suited because of the reflected glory of having a son in such a yeshiva? How many unhappy marriages are caused by parents who fail to focus on what their son and daughter need or want in a spouse, and instead concern themselves with the yichus or bank account of the mechutanim?
In an important short work on dealing with struggling teenagers, soon to appear in English, Rabbi Uri Zohar devotes a great deal of attention to the importance of creating a line of open communications with our children long before they enter their teenage years. That means, inter alia, showing an interest in what is important to them, and making sure that they feel comfortable sharing their feelings.
But there is one kind of frequent communication that should be avoided: that which centers exclusively on the child’s test scores, or how highly they are evaluated by others. Constant questions about test scores or popularity or how many points they scored in a basketball game convey the message to our children that they are important to us not for themselves but only for the glory they confer on us. Rather than building a relationship such communication destroys it.
My friend happens to be a major talmid chacham. I have no idea whether any of his sons will approach his level in learning. But by accepting each of his children for what he or she is, he has made it possible for each to develop his or her own potential to the fullest.
“BECAUSE I CHOSE TO BE,” however, is not just good advice on how to relate to our children. It has implications for every aspect of our lives. We live in an age where the very idea of free will is under assault. There are those who argue that all our apparent choices can be understood in terms of certain neural impulses, and that as our understanding of the brain advances, we will be able to predict how a person will react in every circumstance.
The Torah view, of course, rejects that view. Our lives are defined at every moment by the choices we make: “I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; choose life” (Devarim 30:19).
But even we Torah Jews often succumb to determinism. For as depressing as it would be to conceive oneself as lacking free will, it is often consoling to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions and to imagine that we could not have acted otherwise.
Literary critic Gary Saul Morrison observes acutely (in the April Commentary) of one of Tolstoy’s most famous literary creations, Anna Karenina, that she told herself that she had no choice but to succumb to her passions. And that, indeed, is how most modern readers view her. But that was not Tolstoy’s view. Morrison shows how the novelist subtly conveyed “her loss of will [as something] willed.” Even as she feels drawn into a vortex, Tolstoy writes, “She would surrender or resist at will.”
We tend to view our happiness or lack of it as something forced upon us by external circumstances over which we have no control. Yet if we think about the people we know, we will realize how little external circumstances have to do with happiness and how much it has to do with how we relate to those circumstances.
We all know those who have endured one or more tragedies that we imagine would leave us unable to function, and yet maintain a sunny, upbeat disposition and the ability to rejoice in their blessings. And we know others seemingly blessed with all that most people seek, and yet who suffer from anhedonia and seem unable to take pleasure in those blessings.
Some of these differences in disposition are innate. But to a large extent they are chosen. Happiness is quality of the soul, not something imposed upon us.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling Upon Happiness how most people when they hear Siamese twins or people who are disabled in some crucial way say that they are happy deny the possibility that they are telling the truth because they cannot imagine themselves being happy in those circumstances.
That is why handicapped and disabled people are always at the forefront of any campaign against legislation that would confer on doctors the power to terminate lives that are no longer “worth it.” Human beings are notoriously poor predictors of what will make them happy, much less what can make others happy. And much of the reason is the failure to appreciate the element of choice involved.
“Because I choose to be happy” is not just sound advice on how to relate to our children, but on everything else is life as well.