A baby is born with baby fat, a little envelope of fatty tissue that protects him from accidental random bumps with the reality of the world; knocks against the crib, unexpected falls… and all through life, many of us continue to be protected by a little extra fat, plans and obligations, lust and desires, fantasies and aspirations.
We go through life chasing one thing or another; worrying about getting up early so we can be at work on time; having enough money to make ends meet; doing the right thing for our children, being fair to our mate; and getting closer to our goals. Sometimes those goals are so insignificant that we’ve forgotten whether they were gained or lost just a short while later. But in the process… in the navigation of our vehicle through the traffic, in the negotiation of a business deal, while falling in love, we manage to avoid dwelling on our existential loneliness, or about the certainty of death.
Getting old, for many, is a time of getting thinner. Not for all, but for many. There are varying degrees of exposing ourselves to the bare truth. There are those that bumble along unsure of where they are or where they’re going, just trying to stay out of harm’s way. And others, who try to savor the experience of living, taking risks, overcoming painful disappointments, all for the sake of being truly alive, and wanting to know as much as possible about the nature of this unique and infinite universe.
Chuang Tzu the father of Daoism said: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?” Sitting in a straight backed chair in my kibbutz home, watching fish swimming in the aquarium, I relived his experience, wondering about the limits of the consciousness of fish; were they aware of the room beyond the aquarium? Did they see me looking at them? The aquarium limiting their world to so and so many cubic centimeters of water… and at the same time a parable of that same bubble in which I lived.
We could discuss cosmetic surgery and the insertion of Botox under the skin. That is one alternative to searching for wisdom as we grow older. I love Bob Dylan and have followed him from the time he first appeared in the beginning of the 60s till he won what I thought was a well deserved Nobel prize recently. But I beg to differ with the thesis of one of his most beautiful songs: No, I don’t wish my children to be forever young, but to cherish every stage as they grow older, and to explore the possibilities of the personal and individual evolution which is the potential of every human being.
If the ‘birds and the bees’ are seen as an appropriate parable by which the child may learn of nature’s dictates to living beings, then the autumn leaves may be an example to us as we grow old, discard our fat, our skin getting thin and sensitive both to external objects in accidental encounter, and to the pressure of our bones when in the same position too long. Our faults which appeared as youthful folly once, seem exaggerated now by their continuous growth just as ears and noses are often more pronounced on the faces of the aged. And that sensitivity that spurred our curiosity as children may later lead us into melancholy moods and sadness as we contemplate our existential aloneness and our inevitable demise.
And if, at moments such as these, we ache for relief, try to remember the power of the mood, which offers us the harmonies, the undertones and the overtones of thought itself. Regardless of where our thoughts may lead us, it is so important to remember. To remember that we can influence our mood. We know those places that uplift our hearts; those scenes that let us truly relax. It may be a eucalyptus tree for one, or a mountain ridge for another; the face of a loyal old dog, or of a friend who, when you are with him or her, you just can’t help smiling. Not so long ago, I was saddened by some news I heard on the radio. I had turned on the news at 12 midnight, to know what was going on before I went to sleep. And what I heard saddened me. I thought to myself, I don’t want to go to sleep now, with these thoughts on my mind. I’ll have bad dreams. And so I turned to my computer and chose a standup comedian I’d heard before from the huge selection offered me by youtube. This comedian has a political outlook of reverse polarity to mine. But I enjoy his sense of humor… even when he laughs at what I consider holy. I watched him perform for about a quarter of an hour, and I laughed. Not just smiled, I laughed out loud, and felt a lessening of tensions, and wind under my wings; uplift.
Sigmund Freud wrote some very precious chapters on humor and suggested that it juxtaposes items in our consciousness, creating a different perspective which then allows us to reexamine attitudes that have grown stiff from constant reference within the same mental state. That is to say, that if we view something again and again with the same prejudice in mind (he used fear as an example), we will eventually be unable to see the subject without arousing that prejudice. But laughter can enable us to see the subject anew. English speakers are familiar with the famous saying, ‘laughter is the best medicine’. And it turns out that modern research supports this folk knowledge. According to biologists, laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving our resistance to disease. Laughter triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.