Halfway through the recent movie "Definitely, Maybe," an old Jewish joke winds its way into one of the scenes. Kevin Kline, playing a middle-aged professor, has just suffered a heart attack. Lying on hospital bed, a nurse leans over him and asks "Are you comfortable?" Without skipping a beat he responds, "I make a living."
I like that joke because it encapsulates the belief system of a particular type of Jew from a previous generation. These were men for whom machn a lebn — "making a living" — was something they did to support their families, and rarely involved any kind of joy or passion.
Passion was reserved for Torah study for those who were religious. And for those on a different path, passion was centered on the right mix of Bundist/Marxist/Socialist politics that would ultimately redeem the world.
We Mid/Yids are fortunate in having had the luxury to go to college and choose a career. For us, machn a lebn has had a much greater potential of being a reliable source of satisfaction. But as we inch our way toward retirement, that nurse's question hovers in the air. Are we comfortable? What does comfort actually entail? And what kind of a living will we be satisfied to look back on at the end?
My husband and I spar about this almost weekly. He is, to his credit, a responsible man and a hard worker. I feel the need to push him to work less so that he can pursue his long-dormant artistic side. Why wait?
Yet he had the experience of watching his parents need long-term care and is nervous about security. That's a real concern. But I'm equally concerned about postponing the use of whatever energy and vitality we still possess because there's no guarantee how long that's going to last.
For many of us, this stage of life has a well-deserved sense of order. We own a home or condo (and some of us, even a second home). We're valued — we hope — for our expertise at work. The college-tuition bills may still be rolling in, but our children are beginning to launch themselves into their own living spaces and, ultimately, their own careers.
It was important to spend all those years providing for ourselves and for our loved ones. But now, perhaps, it's less about money and more about the other things we'll leave behind.
Adventure and Fulfillment
A well-loved rabbi we know just gave his notice — much to the consternation of his congregants. Although several years from the typical age of retirement, he's determined to spend quality time with his new grandchildren — the kind of time a rabbi's schedule won't allow.
A cousin in Boston gave up a busy law practice to sing Yiddish songs with a klezmer band. And several friends with health-care backgrounds have taken breaks from their traditional jobs to offer their skills to underserved populations overseas.
The lack of stigma attached to switching professions or trying out new skills is one of the blessings of our generation. Assuming that we only have this one lifetime, how much deep satisfaction and meaning can we squeeze out of our days?
I'm making a case for an as-yet-unarticulated stage of life, where we keep one eye on our bankbook and our adult duties, and the other one looking toward adventure and inner fulfillment.
Those of the previous generation who shruggingly "made a living" could not possibly have envisioned the kinds of work — or salaries — their children and grandchildren would come to know. Nor could they have conceived that we would have these years — assuming finances and health are stable — with almost unlimited promise to take on another active stage of life.
I think they would have nodded in agreement, though — that this was a step in the right direction when you round out machn a lebn with another shot at personal purpose and the chance to give back.
Mara Sokolsky is a freelance writer living in Providence, R.I. E-mail her with any comments at: [email protected]