Embedded in the teachings of our Sages is the perspective that there is no room for retirement in this world. Taking it easy and being disengaged from the world is an unhealthy mode of being.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s negative attitude on retirement is well known as illustrated by this story. A major hit movie starring Michel Douglas about two decades ago called Black Rain was written by a man named Warren Lewis. At some point my father (Schwartzie) took him to the Rebbe for dollars and to receive his blessing. While in New York he decided to bring his father with him to the Rebbe. His father was a practicing physician in his late eighties! As he passed by the Rebbe he said " I'm a doctor and I’m in my 80's so all my patients have either died or moved to Florida and my wife wants me to retire. What should I do?” The Rebbe turned to him and said loudly "Retiring isn't good for your physical or mental health!"
Why is this though? Why is retiring looked at so negatively? After a long and fruitful life, doesn't one deserve a little peace and quiet?
To gain some perspective on this let us look at some facts about old age. According to the most recent research, our genes are only about 10 percent of the equation in determining how long and in what health. How we live and our manner of lifestyle accounts for 90 percent of the equation.
By lifestyle, however, I don’t mean dieting and exercise. Though these are important factors, they are not ultimately the critical ingredient for an active and engaged long life. Dan Buettner is one of the scientists researching the crucial ingredient in long-lived people. You’ll be shocked at what he found.
He conducted a study in which they isolated three communities of people who all lived long and active lives far beyond the average life expectancy, one in Italy, one in Japan and one in America.
His editor at Geographic wanted him to find America's Blue Zone (what he calls these communities of long-lived active people). He found America's longest-lived population among the Seventh-Day Adventists concentrated in and around Loma Linda, California. Adventists are conservative Methodists. They celebrate their day of focus and rest from sunset on Friday till sunset on Saturday. Sound familiar?
A "24-hour sanctuary in time," they call it. In America, life expectancy for the average woman is 80. But for an Adventist woman, their life expectancy is 89. And the difference is even more pronounced among men, who are expected to live about 11 years longer than their American counterparts. Now, this is a study that followed about 70,000 people for 30 years. A thorough sterling study.
For 24 hours every week, no matter how busy they are, how stressed out they are at work, where the kids need to be driven, they stop everything and they focus on their God, their social network, and then, hardwired right in the religion, are nature walks -walking to Shul anyone?-.
And the power of this is not that it's done occasionally, the power is it's done every week for a lifetime. They also tend to hang out with each other thus reinforcing these good habits. And then the foundation of all this is how they connect. They put their families first; take care of their children and their aging parents. They all tend to belong to a faith-based community, which research shows is worth between four and 14 extra years of life expectancy if you go to services four times a month. I mean, you can't make this stuff up.
The common denominator of each of these three cultures is that they take time to downshift and focus on what’s really important, their purpose and sense of mission. The Sardinians (the community in Italy) pray. The Seventh-Day Adventists pray. The Okinawans have this system of ikigai which means "purpose in life". They rise every day and the first thought they think of is their ikigai which can be roughly translated as “why am I here”.
It’s incredible. The most cutting edge science on aging recommends the very things that are built into the system of Judaism.
When you're in a hurry or stressed out, that triggers something called the inflammatory response, which is associated with everything from Alzheimer's disease to cardiovascular disease. When you slow down for 15 minutes a day you turn that inflammatory state into a more anti-inflammatory state. When this happens at least once a week, the results are staggering in terms of life expectancy and vibrancy.
Another interesting element Buettner brings is that the way they treat their elders tangibly affects how long old people live in these societies. One of the most important elements of these societies is how they treat older people. You ever notice here in America, social prestige seems to peak at about age 25? Just look at the advertisements. However in these societies, the older you get the more prestige you have, the more wisdom you're celebrated for.
This is a central concern in Judaism. The Bible itself states:
In the presence of the elderly you shall rise and you shall respect an elder; you shall fear your G-d, I am Hashem. (Vayikra 19:32)
The Torah uses an unusual verb in the commandment to respect the elderly. The Hebrew words are "vehadarta pnei zaken". "Vehadarta" does not really mean respect. In fact, the word is a verb form of the word "hadar" meaning "beauty". The exact translation of the commandment is probably closer to "you shall find beauty in the face of an elder". How fitting. It’s incredible how many components parallel precisely the values in Judaism.
This is a culture that has yielded Ellsworth Wareham. Ellsworth Wareham is 97 years old. He's a multimillionaire, yet when a contractor wanted 6,000 dollars to build a privacy fence, he said, "For that kind of money I'll do it myself." So for the next three days he was out shoveling cement, and hauling poles around. And predictably, perhaps, on the fourth day he ended up in the operating room. But not as the guy on the table; the guy doing open-heart surgery. At 97 he still does 20 open-heart surgeries every month.
Consider Marge Denton. Marge is 104. Her grandson lives in the Twin Cities. She starts her day with lifting weights. She rides her bicycle. And then she gets in her beer colored 1994 Cadillac Seville, and tears down the San Bernardino freeway, where she still volunteers for seven different organizations. Her sense of wonder and passion for life is undiminished. "A stranger is a friend I haven't met yet!" is a favorite quote of hers.
These sorts of people are exceptional to be sure, but their vibrancy is attainable to all. They do all these life promoting habits and practices but what about who they are as a person, what drives them? What is so special about their internal character that gives them such vibrancy?
The commonality to be found in them all is the fact that they have embraced struggle. They haven’t reached a certain age and said “Ok enough already. I just want to relax and not have to fight anymore.”
They all understand that not just is struggle necessary for life it’s actually a generator of life and energy. We don’t usually think this way . We generally tend to think that struggle saps our energy and willpower. It’s an unfortunate and uncomfortable part of life. But all too often we fail to realize the depth and beauty hidden in our struggles. Without minimizing the pain that we all go through in life, it is important to understand the impact our struggles and battles have on us. They are part of us; they make us who we are. Judaism in fact says, that the struggle to overcome and give it our best shot is in fact, what makes us free people.
There is a famous teaching of our Sages:
“The only free person is the one who toils in Torah and Mitzvoth”
Everyone asks- how could it be? Seemingly Judaism is full of do’s and dont's, it is a religion that imposes all sorts of restriction and then we say that in truth it gives us freedom?
The answer is that we have to re-align our understanding of freedom, liberty, struggle, adversity and happiness. The message our society sends is that the less restriction the more freedom. The less self-work and struggle we need to engage in with ourselves, the freer we are and the happier we are.
Judaism asserts the exact opposite. The more we work with ourselves to improve and the more we strive in our internal battles the more successful and happier we are. What’s so interesting is that all the most recent innovations in psychology and sociology don’t even dispute Judaism’s perspective anymore. From people like Martin Seligman (president of the American Psychological Association) to Dan Gilbert (Professor of psychology at Harvard) all the research is showing that the more people have an overall theme and sense of purpose in life, and the more they are willing to fight for that mission, the happier and the freer they feel.
This might very well be the reason that so many of our famous leaders and heroes lived to well over 90 years old, and in a time of history where the average life expectancy was 40 years old. Such titanic figures as Rabbi Akiva, Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai (over 100) , Hillel (over 100) , Shammai, Ben Azai as well as more recent leaders. The Chofetz Chaim (95), the Vilna Gaon (77), the Alter Rebbe (68), the Shaagas Aryeh (90) and on and on. This is incredibly anomalous given the time period and conditions they lived in. But these people were giants of struggle and thus possessed immense vibrancy in life. Perhaps this is why they maintained robust energetic lives until their 80’s 90’s and beyond.
OK so struggle is good but how can we embrace struggle or even as some would say, to dance with it, to look forward to it?
Aimee Mullins was born was born with fibular hemimelia (missing fibula bones) and, as a result, had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was one year old. That’s it for her athletic career. I mean, she can pursue other interests but you’d think there’s no way she'll even be able to walk normally. In fact, not just did she walk, she sprints for a living. In high school, she held the school's record for stolen bases in softball. While attending Georgetown University, she competed against able-bodied athletes in NCAA Division I track and field events, and is the first double-amputee sprinter to compete in NCAA track and field for Georgetown University.
When asked how she overcame such titanic adversity in her life she responded with an interesting thought. She said that people always ask her that and she doesn’t exactly understand the question. Implicit in this phrase of "overcoming adversity" is the idea that success, or happiness, is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience, as if successes in life have to come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetic's or what other people perceive as a disability. But, in fact, we are changed by our obstacles. We are marked by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Perhaps this is a good thing. Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life. It's part of our life. And, certainly, this is not trying to diminish the impact, the weight, of a person's struggle. But we have to place it into perspective.
There is adversity and challenge in life, and it's all very real and relative to every single person, but the question isn't whether or not you're going to meet adversity, but how you're going to meet it. So, our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care for from adversity, but preparing them to meet it well.
It’s not about devaluing, or negating, these more trying times as something we want to avoid or sweep under the rug, but instead to find the opportunities that come wrapped in the adversity and the struggle.
So maybe the viewpoint we should have is not to be fixated on overcoming adversity. Instead we should be opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it, maybe even dancing with it. And, perhaps, if we see adversity as natural, consistent and useful, we're less burdened by the presence of it.