By Dr. H. David Burstein December 2010
Of all the formal bits of advice I received during my dental education, maybe the most important was at a formal. During his remarks at our Graduation Ball, Dean Richard Ten Cate quoted a Buddhist proverb “You have what you want, now learn to enjoy it.
A short time later there was a day in which I attended a wedding, had two funerals, and was invited to four graduation parties.
During his eulogy at one of the funerals Rabbi Jordan Pearlson asked “Why is it that when good things happen to us we take them for granted, but when bad things happen we say “Why me?
These two ideas have stuck with me for 28 years.
On his radio talk show Dennis Prager spends an hour each week on the topic of happiness. He challenges listeners as to where we seek happiness. There are people who think they will find happiness once they get X, Y, and Z. But what happens when they do not get X,Y, and Z? Are they not entitled to pursue happiness elsewhere?
Conversely, what about the people who do get X, Y, and Z, and still are unhappy?
A starting point is a honest assessment of our base. Pragers indispensable ingredient for happiness is gratitude for what we have. The above quotes look at two of our sources, one we created for ourselves, and the other for gifts that are not of our doing.
Being a Canadian Jew born in the middle to late 20th century, we should be happier than 99% of humanity.
As Canadians, we live in a free country with a Charter of Rights. Our governments, while imperfect, are accountable to the people who elect them. Our civil society has functioning utilities plus a vibrant and stable economic infrastructure.
As Jews, we are part of a civilization that has been around for over 4000 years. The depths of Jewish roots and its moral foundations can add meaning and purpose to our lives. We form part of a chain of an eternal people. We also live at the time of the existence of the State of Israel, reborn after its destruction almost 2000 years ago.
As dentists, we had the opportunity to get a university education. We were smart enough to get into a graduate program. The degrees we have obtained enable us to improve the quality of life of the people we serve. At the end of the day we are able to enjoy the fruits of our labour.
We are lucky.
This is not to discount the sadness of personal tragedy. None of us are immune from it.
My sister Judy died in 2009 at the age of 56. She was as kind and decent a person as I will ever know. While she never married, she knew she was loved, touched lives, and had a meaningful existence. Judy died with peace of mind. As she was quoted “I always dreamed Id get the portrait. You know, a husband and a few healthy kids. Now I realize that while I did not get a portrait, I got a landscape.
While people do express gratitude for gifts they have, I have wondered how they think about the sources of their good fortune. Some people make God out to be a “celestial butler. They believe in God to the extent that God answers their requests. Two examples are:
When athletes thank God for winning do they think that God is micromanaging how a ball game progresses? They should be thanking God for creating a world in which the opportunity exists to enable them to experience the moment of triumph.
Or when people say “There but for the grace of God go I. It is a 16th century comment attributed to English reformer John Bradford. I appreciate the sentiment, but do we think that a moral God was actively involved in the misfortune of someone else yet decided to be kind to us?
There is a certain truth to the phrase “That which goes around comes around because our actions do have consequences. However, when people say “What did I do in this or a previous lifetime to deserve this? they seem to imply that their actions were not so bad as to cause them to be the victims to the bad things that have happened.
In his landmark book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People Harold Kushner presents a theology that has been a comfort for me. It is different from an Orthodox understanding that sees God as all good and all powerful, but operates in ways that we humans cannot comprehend. Kushner contends that God is all good, but not all powerful and that when He created the world, He understood that He could not suspend the laws of nature because someone is moral. God gave us laws of nature, laws of chance and free will. Within that paradigm, things happen.
We all have difficulty with the randomness of luck. However, if life was constructed another way it would be absurd and meaningless.
We may think we are in control, but we are not. What we are in control of is how we choose to respond when things happen. That is our free will.
There are miracles. Miracles are not the suspension of the laws of nature. Miracles have to do more with the timing in which the laws of nature, chance, and free will come together.
Our lives are miracles. As Canadian Jewish dentists we live near the pinnacle of existence. We should live with greater gratitude for the blessings life has given us.
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