Good. I got your attention. As anyone who has followed me even a little already knows, I spend much of my time telling my family’s history as to how it pertains to the Holocaust. My parents, of blessed memory, were survivors. They lost a large percentage of their family and friends to the hands of the Nazis and they lived in hiding or on the run for close to 5 years during the occupation of Holland. And of course there is the story of the my uncle’s violin that was recently returned to us due to the righteous acts of a non-Jewish Dutchman and his son. At best these stories are inspirational. But how can our speaking of this and understanding this lead to happiness? It’s about perspective.
I would like to think that my message is an obvious one, but since I don’t see more of it I feel the need to share it with anyone willing to listen. Although Jewish teaching is rich with lessons of how to look at life in a manner that will lead to happiness, this message is not just a Jewish one and it certainly is not meant only for Jews. It starts with a very important question. What makes you happy? It seems like a simple question. One that can be easily answered and highly achievable. Yet many people are not happy. Do they not achieve their goals? Do they have misfortunes that prevent them from reaching a state of happiness. Often yes. But I believe that more often than not it is because they have not learned the proper way to achieve happiness, and that is very simply by deciding to be happy.
The decision to be happy starts with understanding the life that you lead and the gifts given to you, whether by God, if that fits your belief structure, or by circumstance. Since this discussion is about our choices, it is not critical to discuss the origins of these gifts, merely to recognize them. Having been raised by Holocaust survivors, my knowledge of the evils humans are capable of started at basic at a young age and developed into at least an above average understanding as I got older. I learned about the fear people lived in for years of their lives. I learned how they were hungry and cold and had no way of knowing when and if they would satisfy that hunger or ever feel warm again. I learned about how even the bravest people lived in fear and had the courage to do things they needed to do even if it would bring more fear. And I learned about how when it was all over it never really ever ended completely, because either what they had been through was now part of them or the people they cared for had been taken from them in a way that would haunt them forever. And as a result I learned that not only did I have nothing to complain about, I should feel ashamed of myself if I did.
Psychologists might call this ‘children of Holocaust survivors guilt’, and they might be right. But what is important about this is not whether or not that is the root cause of the conclusion, what is important is where it lead me. It goes without saying that we don’t celebrate anything that happened under Nazi occupation, but at the same time we can say that the best way to honor and remember the suffering of those lost as well as those who survived is to celebrate life. Many of us have known people who came out of the war having lost loved ones and suffered difficulties or atrocities and still managed to celebrate the life they had in their years following this horrific time. They did so because they now looked at what they had, they appreciated their gifts, and they were determined to at least try to be happy. They showed us the way. It is up to us to choose to follow it.
Happiness is not something that can be measured. It is an opinion. Even our own happiness is based on what we think it is and our belief that we’ve achieved that state. All we can do is make the decision that we want to be happy, learn the lessons from those who have been, and honor those who were less fortunate by appreciating what we have in our lives. This is my way of honoring not only those who were killed by the Nazis, but those who survived as my parents did. By studying the past, telling the story, and having a better, more clear perspective.
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