It's My Party
A parable for Thanksgiving
Randolph found the invitation slipped under his door. In gilded, embossed letters it read:
The invitation was signed, T.M. Goddard. Randolph did not recognize the name. Still, it was an intriguing invitation, and since he was unemployed and alone at the time, he decided to attend.
At noon the next day, a black limousine pulled up to Randolph's door, and he got in. After many hours of driving, they passed through the gates of a grand estate. Verdant lawns, orchards laden with fruit, and splendid gardens bordered the long, winding driveway. Finally, they arrived at the magnificent mansion.
A butler showed Randolph to his room. “I didn't realize I was invited to stay overnight,” Randolph commented, perplexed. The room was comfortable, although not lavish. In the closet was a wardrobe of clothes, all exactly Randolph's size.
At dinner, Randolph was shown to his place at a table for ten. The other guests greeted him amiably. Much to Randolph's astonishment, they had not arrived that day. Gregory, a loquacious chap who was more than happy to answer all of Randolph's questions, had, in fact, been at the party for more than six years.
“Six years?!” Randolph exclaimed, thoroughly baffled. “What kind of party lasts for six years? And where is our host? I'd like to meet him.”
“Oh,” Gregory chuckled, “none of us has ever seen Mr. Goddard. They say he lives in the penthouse, but who knows? As far as the party goes, it's grand. Meals are served three times a day. A variety of amusements and entertainments are offered every night. The grounds are extensive, and the gardens are always in bloom.”
“Only one thing is required of us,” added another guest named Cecelia. “It seems that Mr. Goddard is a bit of an exercise enthusiast. Every guest is expected to exercise five hours a day. You can pick between swimming, tennis, polo, ice-skating, skiing (I don't know where they bring the snow in from), golf, sailing on the lake, or 20 other sports. Other than that, you're free to do whatever you want.”
Randolph was awed. “Such hospitality!” he exclaimed. “Such generosity! Mr. Goddard must be an amazing chap!”
After dinner, a couple from his table, Brendon and Emily, showed Randolph around. The rooms of the mansion were decorated with works of art, the view from the upper balcony was breath-taking, and the “specialty chambers,” including several scientific laboratories, music rooms, art studios, and a hot house filled with tropical plants, seemed to cater to everyone's interests.
Weeks and months passed. Randolph was having a splendid time. Then the cuisine started to bore him. Although some two dozen dishes were offered at every meal, they were the same two dozen dishes every day. And his room started to feel a little cramped. And once he had seen the view from the upper balcony a myriad of times, he became jaded to it.
Two years passed. One night at dinner, Randolph complained to Gregory, “I've tried every sport here. But they don't have fencing, which used to be my favorite sport. I think it's an unfortunate omission.”
“Quite so,” Gregory agreed. “And my favorite sport – snorkeling – is missing as well. They failed to provide a seashore.”
“The truth is,” Brendon piped up, “I don't like sports at all. I don't think it's fair that we be required to spend five hours a day exercising. I would rather paint.”
From then on, the dinner table conversation every night focused on the party's deficiencies. The entertainment, while first class, was repetitive. The clothes had gone out of style.
As for the host, no one mentioned him anymore.
One evening before dinner, when Randolph had been at the party for more than four years, he found what looked like an invitation slipped under his door. He opened it. In gilded, embossed letters it read:
Randolph was abashed. He ran to dinner and, with quivering hands, showed his friends the invitation. “It's not fair!” he exclaimed. “I haven't done anything wrong. I've obeyed the rules. I've exercised five hours a day, even when I didn't want to. How dare he do this to me?!”
Everyone agreed that it was appalling to ask – really, coerce – someone to leave. “Goddard's not such a great host, after all,” Brendon sneered.
“He never was,” Emily agreed. “What kind of a host never appears to greet his guests?”
“It's deplorable,” Cecelia lamented.
The next day, Randolph's friends escorted him to the main entrance, where the black limousine was waiting. It was a tearful good-bye, punctuated by exclamations of anger at the host who had treated Randolph so shabbily.
As the limousine pulled away from the curb, Randolph leaned out the window and shouted up toward the penthouse, “It's not fair!” Everyone somberly nodded in agreement.
TIME AND ENTITLEMENT
The two enemies of gratitude are time and a sense of entitlement. One feeds into the other; the more time elapses, the more we feel entitled to what originally we may have perceived as a gift.
For example, the birth of a healthy baby is greeted by the new parents as an incredible, miraculous gift: ten fingers and ten toes and they all move! But how many parents thank God for ten fingers and ten toes on a two-year-old? A ten-year-old? A child's first smile fills the parents with jubilation. But the hundredth smile?
Without awareness, there can be no gratitude or joy.
Human beings are programmed to be ungrateful. Stick your hand in a bowl of hot water, and after a couple minutes you'll cease to feel the heat. The same is true for all your senses. Live next to the train tracks long enough and you'll stop hearing the train. Your first intoxicating whiff of jasmine in full bloom is automatically your last; no matter how long you keep your nose stuck in the flowers, your olfactory sense will cease to register the scent.
Desensitization is built into the human being. It deadens our awareness over time, and without awareness, there can be no gratitude or joy.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a contemporary sage, has pointed out that the prerequisite of joy is daat, awareness. We may have erroneously believed that the prerequisite of joy is a felicitous life – to have ample quantities of everything we want. Rabbi Wolbe teaches that joy is the result not of having more things, but of having more awareness of what we already have. The same is true for gratitude.
Gratitude begins where a sense of entitlement leaves off. We learn this from our Matriarch Leah. The Patriarch Yaakov knew prophetically that he would have 12 sons who would become the forbears of the nation of Israel. Since he had four wives, his wife Leah expected that three sons would be born to each wife. Therefore, when she gave birth to her fourth son, the first son she did not feel entitled to, “she said, 'This time I will thank God,' therefore she named him 'Yehuda' ” (Gen. 29:35). “Yehuda” is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “thanks.” (The word “Jew” is a derivative of “Yehuda,” and therefore also means “thanks.”)
In the battle between entitlement and gratitude, we humans have an inner agenda to favor a sense of entitlement. Either we get what we deserve or we get a free gift undeserved. To assert the former is to empower ourselves with “rights,” a boon to the ego. To admit the latter is like receiving charity; it's humbling. Therefore, we've made a fine art of convincing ourselves that whatever we have, we deserve.
For example, the Talmud asserts that one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah is the commandment to honor one's parents. This honor is obligatory even if one's parents are full of flaws. Sefer HaChinuch declares that the underlying rationale of this mitzvah is gratitude. Not only did parents bring the child into the world, but also they fed and cared for him during his initial years of complete helplessness. Most parents continue to feed and take care of their children for at least 18 years.
Yet most children, instead of feeling overwhelmed by gratitude, feel entitled to everything their parents give them. How many children – teenagers and older – walk into the parental home, toss off a perfunctory greeting, “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!” make a beeline for the refrigerator, and then complain that there's nothing good to eat?
Again, in this scenario, time teams up with a sense of entitlement to banish gratitude. If, on the other hand, a child, for whatever reason, had been separated from her parents for most of her life and then reunited with them, she would no doubt feel gratitude for every meal served – at least for the first month!
Our sense of entitlement makes us take for granted whatever we have.
Humans have a sense of “squatter's rights” that extends to the normal functioning of our bodies, our faculties, our relationships, etc. This means that we feel that we have a right to everything we have simply because we have it. When illness, accident, or loss divests us of something, we not only feel pain at the loss, but also we feel umbrage at our rights being violated.
The father of a friend of mine died at the age of 91. For two months prior to his death, he was hospitalized with various conditions. He was often unconscious and incontinent, and he suffered all the indignity and pain that are the concomitants of old age, illness, and death. After he died, in addition to mourning the loss of her beloved father, my friend was bitter at God that someone as good as her father should have ended his life like that. Often her bitterness exceeded her sadness.
Instead of feeling grateful for our years at the party, we feel resentful when the party ends.
UP THE DOWN ESCALATOR
Our sense of entitlement makes us take for granted whatever we have. This mindset dooms us to search for happiness in ever new experiences and relationships. Our trips abroad must be to ever more exotic destinations; each new wife must be younger and prettier than the last. New, more, and better becomes the motto of our ever-receding goal.
Alas, such a pursuit of happiness is fated to fail. Every new acquisition eventually becomes old. “More” is never “enough.” And today's “better” will always be bested by tomorrow's “better yet.” We are, by nature, riding a down escalator. If we stand still, the momentum of our desensitized senses will always carry us downward toward less happiness.
Everything, at every moment, is a free gift from God.
Judaism, the religion that means “thankfulness,” offers an antidote: To understand and accept that everything, at every moment, is a free gift from God.
The sages have taught us that God recreates the world anew at every moment. So if you can see to read these words, it's because God is giving you the gift of sight, right now. You have sight not because you've always had sight. You have sight, gift-wrapped in a half million precision cones and rods, as a present from God to you in this very moment, because God deigns to give you the gift of sight.
The particular means that Judaism offers to re-sensitize us is blessings. Every blessing is a step up the down escalator. A Jew recites a blessing before and after eating or drinking anything, even a glass of water. The first words upon awakening are, “Modeh ani,” expressing gratitude for the gift of another day of life. The morning prayers start with a series of blessings thanking God for everything from sight to the ability to stand erect, from the clothes we wear to the energy that enables us to tackle our day despite tiredness.
Every one of us is an invited guest at God's party. This means that whether we're served Chivas Regal or soda pop, steak or soybeans, we have no right to lodge complaints against the host. Even if we are very good guests, behaving completely in accordance with the laws of etiquette, we have no right to insist on anything, nor to walk away with the silver forks just because we used them properly.
Even the young guests at a six-year-old's birthday party know not to complain if they're served cake, but no ice cream. Even if they didn't get the exact party favor they wanted, they know to thank the host as they leave.