I was flying to Canada one autumn to speak at a college. I was on a British carrier that had a lot of Europeans on board. The computer that selected my seat had placed me next to a husband and wife in their mid-fifties. They were a Jewish couple from England who had been vacationing in the United States. Other than smiling and saying hello as I sat down, I had not said anything to them for the first hour and a half of our flight. Instead, I enjoyed being privy to a fascinating conversation between a husband and wife who had been through a lot together. Trust me, it wasn’t eavesdropping. They were so entirely caught up in their conversation about family, business, music, fine wines, and politics it was impossible to shut them out. I didn’t want to anyway. These were the kind of people you’d choose for companions if you had to be stuck in a lifeboat for a couple weeks.
Midway through dinner they invited me into their conversation by utilizing the normal small talk questions. My questions to them were a lot more probing (minding other peoples’ business is part of my job). I learned about their business endeavors in England, or their wayward son, of their personal yearning to die in Israel, and of how their ability to dream at all was nearly dashed as children. Both narrowly escaped Hitler’s gas chambers. She lost her parents at Dachau. He wasn’t sure where his parents perished.
I asked them what I thought was an intelligent question.
“Are you happy?”
Neither of them spoke for a second. Then this wise Jewish gentleman made a smirking sound and slowly shook his head as he stared straight in front of him.
“You Americans. The bottom line with you is, ‘Are you happy?’ You want to make sure that when all is said and done, you feel a certain way. That requires life to be fair, generous, and free from hassles. Life has been very unfair to us. We have made, lost, and made again a fortune of this world’s goods. We’ve never really known a time when we didn’t have to battle fear and uncertainty. But we never approached life as if it owed us something. We have had the opportunity to love and to hope. What more could we need?”
Wise reprimands should be viewed as gifts. I realized that this decent man had taken the time and the risk to be honest. In the process he gave me a gift that I could enjoy for a lifetime.
It is easy to fall into the trap of “needing” something emotional or superficial before you’ll allow yourself to find contentment. But I learned (from two people who should know) that contentment doesn’t require a formula, it requires an attitude. They had a gentle and quiet peace in their hearts I envied. They weren’t living life for what they could get, but for what they had. And because they didn’t demand anything from life, life had a hard time letting them down. They were serious and disciplined stewards of their expectations.
They did not covet what they did not possess.
Source: Tim Kimmel, author of “Grace Based Parenting”