As we approach the end of 2021, it is my hope for each and every one of you that the year ahead brings you peace and happiness. We never know for sure what is coming, who we will meet, who we will lose and experiences we will never forget. So much of it is out of our control. It is my wish for all of you that in controlling that which we truly can control, our attitudes and approaches towards life, that we make the most out of every single day. Look inside our hearts and minds and work every day towards being the very best version of ourselves, and making the most of the blessing of every single day we have on this earth.
The day after my mother passed I wrote a piece entitled, “An Angels departs”. Today as a special milestone approaches I offer you this piece, entitled, Remembering an Angel.
Sixty years ago this Saturday, January 1st, my mother and father were celebrating my mother’s 40th birthday together with friends in Cincinnati, Ohio. During a game of Canasta, my then very pregnant mother started laughing so hard she went into labor 2 weeks early and I was born the very next day. While I embrace my upcoming birthday with gratitude, it is somewhat bittersweet, because I know I will not be alone in remembering and missing my mother on what would have been her 100th birthday.
When I saw the upcoming date, 1/1/22, I couldn’t help feel like it looked familiar to me. It was then that I remembered how much my mother embraced the uniqueness of the numbers representing the day of her birth, and how these numbers signified this very special day approaching. There are so many things to say about my mother, Sipora Groen, born Sipora Catharina Rodrigues-Lopes. The thing I say to people most often, partially because it sums her up so well, but also because I know she would have liked it, is if you didn’t like my mother, you didn’t like anyone. She was warm, loving, jovial, and as social as anyone you will ever meet. But what very possibly made her so special, was that she was so very much more than that. Some of her greatest attributes were so understated that they could easily be missed by the casual observer. This was very simply because she was never who she was for show, she just was who she was, and was blessed with qualities most never acquire.
Some of the strongest and most intelligent people we meet or know of, show off these qualities on full display for all to witness and acknowledge. I do not say this disparagingly, since these qualities are meaningful and positive, I merely state this to emphasize one of the most remarkable things about my mother. When it came to her strength and intelligence, she was one of the most non self-promoting people you could ever meet. Highly intelligent, she had no trouble sitting in a room of people and allow them to take center stage. Whether it was wisdom or natural inclination, she understood that her intelligence was just another tool she could use to improve her life and the life of those she cared about, not something to show off to others.
Her strength was not something she ever used to achieve a dominance over others, rather a means of helping other and dealing with experiences that might have crushed the spirit of people with lesser means of coping.
My mother was just 13 years old when her mother passed away of natural causes. Left with a brother almost 3 years younger and a father struggling emotionally from the loss of his young wife, my mother had to deal with hardships most 13 year olds do not have to face. When the Nazis invaded Holland 5 years later she would have to face a different level of hardship, one almost impossible for most people to even comprehend. She went into the war with a fiancé who would subsequently be one of the 75% of Dutch Jewry murdered by the Nazis. Her father and brother would be taken to Auschwitz and murdered as well. Many friends and family perished in this time, and had in not been for my father, Rabbi Nardus Groen, my mother would have very likely met the same fate. She came out of the war with her newborn son Marcel as the one thing she had to live for, and had to spend many of those early months quarantined away from him due to illness. Eventually my father would return from military service and begin to build a family together with her.
My parents would be together till the death of my father on June 13, 2007. I always say that there was only one thing my father feared, and that was being without my mother. While in many ways my father was the strongest man I’ve ever known, I am not so sure he would have been able to live 10 years without my mother with as much fulfillment as my mother did without him for her last 10 years. My mother loved and respected my father dearly, and I truly believe the one thing she missed in her last ten years on earth was her husband of over 60 years. Even so, her incredible wisdom and inner strength drove her to rebuild those last years and recreate her life in a truly remarkable way. About a year after my father’s passing, give or take, one day she turned to Marcel and said, “he’s not coming back.” From this point on she rebuilt her last years into one final chapter of an extraordinary life, spreading joy, love and strength to whoever was open to receiving it from her. She was “Oma” (Dutch for grandmother) to so many, and made the term one of endearment to so many who had never even heard it before.
As I sit here, nearing what would have been her 100th birthday, there is still something I find thoroughly amazing. My mother was a short, gentle, physically unassuming woman. She sometimes looked at life with a simplicity that made her appear to be a young soul, for those of us who believe in such a thing. Yet more than 4 ½ year after her body left this earth, her presence, her very soul still guides me and supports me in a way I could have never dreamed possible, and I know from others who knew her that I have not been alone in feeling this way.
So while I am not alone in wishing my mother was here on earth celebrating her 100th birthday with those she loved and who loved her, I know that her birthday was, and still is a cause for tremendous celebration, something I will do with the joy I know she would have wanted from all of us.
Over the years, those who have followed me know that I write my best when what I write comes from the heart. As I am on the brink of an important personal milestone, what I write today is as much from the heart as anything I have ever written. What I want to share with you today are some of the most important life lessons I’ve learned in my 60 years on earth.
So if you ask yourself what is it about me that makes the lessons worth listening to, it’s simple. I am a very happy man. While I may not be the most successful of people by the standards of some, should a wealthy individual with many acquisitions be seen as a success if said individual is not happy? Well one of the important lessons I’ve learned, and one I will share right away, is that my personal happiness or success is not determined by how others judge their own. So I will leave that question unanswered, because it has little to no bearing on me.
One of the big questions we face is whether or not life should be looked at through the big picture lens or as a series of events. The truth is, as balance is one of the most important aspects of life, being able to identify events and the big picture as 2 major elements in a good life is very important. Friendships, and relationships as a whole are a perfect example of the application of this balance. There are people with who we share great moments and people with who we have long lasting meaningful relationships. Our most treasured relationships are with those that encompass both. However, part of that for which we need to be grateful are those who are in our life in whatever capacity it turns out to be. The concept of accepting someone for who they are is not only poignant, it is critical to maintaining relationships that will last and most likely enhance our lives.
All these theoretical concepts are nice, but when push comes to shove how many of us are able to put aside our egos and preconceived notions in order to maintain these relationships? It’s a good question and one that no one person is qualified to answer. I will say though, that up towards the top of principals I live by is the notion of not losing sight of the objective. To put too much emphasis on being respected or making a point, knowing full well that respect can’t be forced and ideals can be imposed, is taking a potentially pleasant or meaningful gathering and turning it into a conflict. Whether you justify it or not, you’ve lost sight of your objective. Or if you go on a vacation and one bad experience, be it with a place or person, occupies more space in your head than the thrill of your trip, you have lost sight of your objective.
Now of course I know that some things are out of our control and no matter what we do we can’t change them or make them better, but this leads me to an even more important lesson I’ve learned, one that we’ve heard often and one I work to apply every day of my life.
The lesson I am referring to is one of the core principals in living a happy and fulfilling life. It is understanding that we should only focus on controlling that which we can control, and knowing how to accept, or at the very least come to terms with that which we cannot control. The age of COVID-19 is a more important time in which to apply this principal than any other time I can remember. At least from a communal perspective. It is hard to believe that we live in an era in which dealing with how people treat each other during a pandemic is an added problem to contend with, but as we all know, it most certainly is one. I am not knowledgeable enough to speak in absolutes when it comes to COVID, and whether or not I feel anyone else is or not. All I can do in every aspect of my life is to treat others in a way I feel is fair and decent and take any actions or precautions I deem appropriate for me or anyone else for who I am responsible. Disease, illness and death are not good things I can change with a positive attitude, but my attitude can have an impact on how I and sometimes others can deal with or come to terms with these issues.
Don’t get weighed down by the need to avoid living a life with some or many clichés. Each moment is precious. There! I said it, fully aware of what a cliché it is. Does that make it any less true? Absolutely not. Appreciation for what we have now is as important as appreciation for what we have had till now. Being in the moment allows us to get joy from a brief encounter with a stranger, a delicious food, a refreshing drink, or a beautiful sunset or vista. While an individual moment rarely is special enough to alter an entire perspective, the cumulative appreciation makes the love of these moments more than just brief experiences, they make you the person you should desire to become and helps give you the added strength to deal with life’s more challenging moments.
Before I share with you what I have come to believe is the most important thing I have learned about life, I am going to briefly, and as safely as possible address what are arguably the 3 most highly debated subjects to discuss. Money, religion and God.
I am of the belief, another belief I know I share with others, that when it comes to all 3, each individual needs to decide for themselves how much importance they each get, if any. Most people who say they don’t care about money have either so much that is no longer a concern, or feel that what they have in life is enough to make them happy. Whether you care about money or not, the one piece of advice I would offer, is do not let money control you or define you.
Religion may forever be debated as coming from God or man, a matter I will not debate in this piece, but no one can ever convince me that using religion to harm another human being is anything other than a perversion of what one claims to be an ethical pursuit. If you believe in any religion, use it for good.
While some may have put God and religion in the same category, I firmly believe these are 2 very separate discussions. Religion is about dogma and personal and communal behaviors. God is rooted more in belief of a higher power, and in my opinion, there may be nothing more personal, nothing more unique than each individual’s perception of the existence or lack of existence of God. The impact of the subject of God may very well be compared to a snowflake. No 2 people look at it entirely the same way. While much of what brings me peace, guidance and happiness is my trust in God and the plan in place, I make it a point to accept this as a perspective very personal to me, regardless of whether or not it is agreed upon or totally dismissed by another.
So where do other people fit into all of this discussion of a happy and fulfilling life? While I see this subject as I see so many others, very personal and individual, for me it is simple. We are put on this planet to live with others. I know that we are born alone and we die alone, but the time in between is a different matter entirely. We live in a world with other people. While I recognize that many may be less comfortable with strangers than I am, and some may be skeptical or suspicious of other’s intentions, one of my most important credos is as follows. Meeting someone I did not know when I woke up in the morning is one of the things that makes life worth living. It always has been the case for me and I intend to do my utmost to make it a sentiment I hold with me for the remainder of my days. To the people I have met, loved, helped and wronged, I thank you all for helping to make me who I am today, and know that I am truly sorry for when I wronged you. It was never about causing you pain, it was only a result of being what we all are, flawed creatures.
All of these lessons enrich my life and make challenges easier to deal with, but when all is said and done, the one principal that truly dictates how I live my life is one taught in Jewish teachings. It is the lesson in Pirkei Avot, The lessons of our fathers. It is the simple and most powerful sentence teaching how to live a happy and fulfilling life. While I know of many people who know this sentence, for those who are not familiar with it, is goes as follows.
Who is the rich one? The one who is happy with their portion.
There is no more sound formula for a happy and fulfilling life than the true understanding of this sentence. It is easy to wake up with so many of your goals achieved and with excessive good fortune, but what happens when it does not all go the way that you planned? At one point or another everyone has to face sadness or disappointment. I can tell you with clarity, understanding and complete honesty that my life has gone very differently than I hoped or expected it would when I was a much younger man. However, I can also say that as I sit here today, just days shy of my 60th birthday, that I am a very happy man. Because my happiness is not dependent on what I will get or even how much time I will get in the future, but on what I have been blessed with today. Life itself is a gift, and I am truly happy with my portion in this life. I wish the same happiness for all of you.