A series of events brought me to train as a chaplain in a local hospital. One does not need to be a rabbi or priest to be a chaplain (contrary to what many believe), but needs to have a desire to help people on an emotional and/or spiritual level as they struggle with various challenges.
Very often in the hospital, I respond to many emergency cases in addition to visiting the patients on the list I am assigned to. This list contains the person’s name, bed number and religion. I visit people of all faiths and denominations and I learn from meeting each of them.
One day, after visiting numerous patients, I realized that I was not going to finish my assigned list. I had only 20 minutes left to the day. I decided to randomly pick a patient from the remainder of names on the list to conclude the day. I arbitrarily chose “JB,” a Roman Catholic. Very often I walk into patient rooms not knowing who or what to expect; this time was no different. As I knocked and entered J’s dimly lit room, I found a sweet, older looking gentleman sitting on the chair with a blanket pulled up to his waist. His warm smile and bright eyes immediately made me feel welcome. After I introduced myself, he kindly told me to sit down. J told me that he was 95 years old (he looked it)and he was in the hospital due to a recently developed heart condition. I was amazed when he told me that this was his first time ever being in a hospital!
J and I spoke for several minutes about his condition and family life. J had many trials and tribulations throughout his life which he openly shared. What was striking to me was that J seemed so happy and proud throughout the duration of our conversation, even while sharing some sensitive information. His face maintained a constant smile and a glow which was so refreshing and nice to see; not always common to see while being in a hospital.
I asked J how and why it is that he manages to be so joyful and look as good as he does (as someone who is 95). Very often when I ask this question to people I hear responses such as: exercise, diet, omega 3’s, facial crèmes and, of course, maintaining an active lifestyle. These are usually the top answers that I receive. What I heard from J was none of the above. J reached out, took my hand in his and looked straight into my eyes with an indescribable focus and intensity in his stare: “You need to be a giver,” he said.
I felt the need to clarify his statement. “Do you mean to say that you feel that God is repaying you with a long life because you have always been a giver?”
J continued to stare into my eyes and said, “No. You always need to be a giver to others.” With that a nurse came in and informed J that he needed to be taken for his procedure. I wished him good luck, told him I would keep him in mind in my prayers and that I would stop in the next day to see how everything went.
After I left J’s room I felt the need to be alone for a few minutes to absorb the significance of the conversation I had just had with J. I realized what a remarkable, succinct piece of advice J had just given me. His key to being happy and to maintaining a long life was to be “a giver.” This was definitely the first time I have ever heard that specific response. I pondered his statement more and I realized how true those words are….
The Arizal writes that if a person wants to attain spiritual perfection he should transform himself from being a receiver to being a giver. Life always provides us with many opportunities for giving. Giving charity, giving kind words to others, giving of our time to help those in need, etc. Some of these opportunities are easier for us than others. True acts of giving though are not thinking about what you will get back in return for the act or what you might think the recipient needs; rather it is thinking about the other persons need and how to fulfill those needs for them.
In Hebrew, all words stem from a root word. No word is random. The word “simcha” (happiness) in Hebrew has the root letters of מחה, which means to erase. What is the connection between happiness and to erase? True happiness can only come by erasing one’s own desires to put MY own needs first and realizing that life is not always about ME. You need to erase the ME out of the picture sometimes and truly focus on giving to another. True happiness can only result when one trains himself to focus outside of oneself by being a pure giver and by being sensitive, empathetic and attuned to others’ needs. By doing this, we then become grateful for what God has given us and more appreciative for all that is in our life.
For those of us that are parents I think it is a crucial message as well. In today’s generation children seem to be “takers” and are accustomed to quickly getting what they want, when they want and always seem to be catered to. Teaching our children that they can be contributors and “givers” with their time and talents will help give them a sense of fulfillment and purpose in the world. They will in turn feel more appreciation for what they have and hopefully feel more happiness and fulfillment with their own lives.
I once read in an article something that I have begun incorporating into my own home: Try to perform a random act of kindness with your family every week. Actively brainstorm with your children to think about someone who could use something to “lift them up.” It does not necessarily need to be for someone you know. You can give food/flowers to someone who had a rough week (that is our personal favorite…); stop off to visit an older person who does not get any visitors; give something to someone new in a community, or just send a card to let someone else know you are thinking of them. These are just a few examples of what one can do. In turn, we all become a bit more sensitive, compassionate and appreciative individuals and community members.
I doubt that J ever studied the Arizal and his teachings, but he definitely helped me unlock one of the secrets to maintaining a healthy and happy life.
By Debby Pfeiffer