There is a common understanding that with age comes wisdom. I’d like to agree and challenge that at the same time. Though I think as we approach “the Golden Years” we achieve a certain amount of wisdom through life experience, and this is why one must stand up for anyone who is seventy years old, I think that at a certain level, we become stupider as we get older. Now, before you start disagreeing, or telling me that there is no such word as stupider, let me explain.
Any parent will happily regale you with tales of their child’s brilliance. How at only two, he could say, “gapa,” which you knew meant “I want to go to the park for, O, how I love the swings and monkey bars;” and how your daughter knew something was wrong immediately when the gum she found on the sidewalk didn’t taste right. But do we really think they’re so smart? I wonder.
Let me give you an example. This is a true story that really happened. Two boys, let’s call them “Yosef” and “Noach,” were friends, on different teams in Pirchei baseball. When they found out they were to play against each other in the same game, each was so excited to be able to play with his friend. In his innocent exuberance, Yosef said, “Oh boy! I can’t wait. I hope Noach wins!” Now, the adults around will give this story a grin, sympathetically clucking at the innocent notion of the boy who didn’t realize that if Noach were to win, Yosef’s team would lose. He missed the point of the game, which is that your team is supposed to win, not the other’s.
Another example. Friends gave my two-year old daughter a present. Before she even opened the present, she danced wildly around in circles with it, exuding pure elation. “Daddy!” she cried, as she pointed to the “My Little Pony” wrapping paper, “I got ponies!” As a father, I smiled at her naïveté, as if to say, “Silly girl, the paper isn’t the gift, it’s what’s inside the paper that’s important.”
Now, let’s look at these stories and decide who is really making the mistake. In the first case, the boy was so happy for his friend and wished him well. That is the ultimate expression of good sportsmanship, and better yet, of midos tovos. He could have looked at the grown-ups and said, “You think playing is about winning? It’s about feeling good and enjoying yourself. If I feel good and am happy when my friend wins, haven’t I progressed beyond your simple understanding of the point?” If we think about it, the child has just exhibited the maturity we would attribute to someone much more advanced in years and with tremendous life experience. We would understand if someone with white hair (whatever was left of it) would say, “I don’t care about winning, it means more to someone else,” but if we hear it from a six-year old we think it’s a mistake.
What about the girl who was over the moon about the wrapping paper? Could she not have turned to me and said, “But Daddy, if you appreciate even the little things, such as the paper that it is wrapped in, and find the joy in them, won’t you be able to appreciate the gift inside that much more?”
How truly wise she is beyond her years. But it is not the wisdom of experience; I believe it is the wisdom of a pure soul, as yet uncorrupted by the materialistic world around us.
The Chovos Halevavos, in his brilliant, enlightening discussion on humility lists the benefits of being humble enjoyed both in this world and the next. The first benefit of being humble, he says, is that you are happy with your lot. You don’t expect anything, so you appreciate every bit of HaShem’s kindness. In addition, you are better able to cope with life’s challenges because you don’t feel you “deserve” better (now THERE’S a dangerous phrase,) and you can calmly do what you need to do.
What does it mean that you are able to enjoy every little detail? It means that you are happy to get the ponies on your wrapping paper, even if you don’t really like the gift; that you take pleasure in seeing the joy in your friend’s face when he accomplishes, even if you have to lose for it to happen; that you are able to ignore the mess your child made in the kitchen and appreciate the gooey cupcake she prepared for you.
It means that you can come closer to that pure state of the neshama, which recognizes the kindness of the Al-mighty. That you can rise above the pettiness and regain the charm of the innocent children.
Let me leave you with one last story to illustrate my point. One winter, our family traveled to Florida for vacation during winter break from school. Upon their return to nursery, each child was asked to name something they did over the break. My daughter responded, “I saw my Bobbie and Zeidy, and rode on a train.”
When we heard what she had said, my wife looked at me quizzically. “We flew down to Florida. What is she saying about a train ride?” It took me a minute, but then it clicked. “Remember when we came back from the airport? We took a monorail to the long-term parking lot. That was her “train ride.””
So, my three-year old was able to find the same joy and appreciation she had from seeing her grandparents in something as simple and mundane as a four-minute train ride. We saw it as a burden, another obstacle to overcome, but she saw it as an adventure, a gift. Children are very wise; we would be wise to learn from them.
The author is a regular contributor to The Front Page who also writes a weekly Torah publication, the Migdal Ohr, now in its eighth year. He is also available to write your feature article on these pages, or to write speeches for you for your next simcha. For more information, visit www.JewishSpeechWriter.com – Your Thoughts, the Perfect Words™ or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.