I never thought of my family as large, at least not until our recent day trip in Amsterdam. In a country where the average non-immigrant family has about .68 children, a family with three is a sensation!
It all started in the airport when the airline representative told us that they would do everything they could to help us with our seating on the next leg of our trip to Israel. "We have much respect for very large families here," she explained.
Very large families? We only have three children! But hey, we'll take any respect we can get, especially when it means that airline employees personally escort you to the front of long lines. Once in Amsterdam, people were literally taking pictures of us in the streets. I finally had to put my foot down when people tried to pet the children. We're just a normal family with three children, not Octomom & Co.!
But the truth is that traveling with three children has its challenges, especially when you take a ten hour stopover into account. First, there's the praying that some other baby on the flight should be crying louder than yours. Then there is the endless procession of snacks and games you ply the children with to keep them quiet, but after not sleeping in a bed for 28 hours, reason and logic don't hold much sway on them anymore.
He thinks children are too much work. After being stuck behind mine for a few hours, I couldn't really blame him.
On the last of the four flights that made up our Passover traveling experience, things had finally quieted down, and I was hoping to catch a few precious zzzz's. Then the man in the row behind me started talking to me from between the seats. First he told me that he doesn't know if he wants to have any children, they're too much work. After being stuck behind mine for a few hours, I couldn't really blame him. Then he told me that he has been holding off on marriage as well because it's too much responsibility. Finally he told me that he noticed we were served kosher meals, and that he was Jewish too. He used to eat kosher, he continued, but it just got too expensive so he gave it up.
I was tired and worn out, but something caught my mind -- a pattern that was emerging. No kids -- too much work. No marriage -- too much responsibility. No kosher --too much money. This fellow seemed reluctant to expend too much effort or resources on anything!
Unfortunately, he is not alone; his perspective is shared by millions across the globe. It partially accounts for the rapidly shrinking birth rate in developing countries, the rising proportion of people who choose never to marry, the rising divorce rate, and the downward trends in volunteerism that proceeded the current recession.
A recent Newsweek article entitled, "Slouching into Fatherhood," highlights this idea. The subtitle boldly stated: "I thought being a dad would come easily to me. But soon after my son's birth, I was looking for a way out." Here is an excerpt from the article:
"When a child was added to my life, it was as if something enormous and coveted was subtracted in return, and the transaction left me reeling, like someone who'd just gambled away his soul. I fell into a well of depression so deep I wasn't even aware of it... Our marriage took a fatal hit...One day, I sat on the hardwood floor next to my son, both of us exhausted. My son started crying. Then I did, too. Actually, we bawled. I don't know why he was crying, but I was mourning the loss of my life as I knew it."
The article does have an uptick at the end, but the author was describing exactly what the man sitting one row behind me probably would feel if he had a baby -- it's too much.
One of the marks of today's society is avoiding pain at all costs. People will avoid discussing something important with their spouse because it will lead to a difficult conversation. Many people take prescription drugs for a few weeks after a relative dies instead of experiencing true grieving. People push off marriage, children, religious choices, career choices, and more because it will upset the careful equilibrium they have worked so hard to set. But is the goal of life not to experience pain?
People often make the mistake thinking that the opposite of pain is pleasure.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, a man with exceptional insight into human psychology, had a very different perspective on pain. He would say that people often make the mistake thinking that the opposite of pain is pleasure. The opposite of pain is no pain, comfort. Equating comfort with pleasure is decadence. All true pleasure comes from personal accomplishment, and that is only reached through challenging experiences. Accomplishment takes effort, diligence, pain, vulnerability and hard work, but the resulting pleasure is exponentially greater than comfort.
Living spouse-free and child-free can give a person comfort and ease, but not pleasure. Let's look at marriage. Anyone can be a good spouse on the days that everything is going just perfectly. No one bothers you at the office. The sky is clear and blue, the temperature hovering around 72 degrees. When you arrive home from work your spouse is waiting for you, looking their best, with a tall glass of ice tea, the newspaper, and a plate of fresh homemade cookies. The house is spotless, your favorite dinner is cooking in the oven, and the children are seated around the dining room table quietly doing their homework. Being a good spouse in that scenario is not where you earn your stripes.
It's when everything is going wrong at the office, the weather is nasty, and you come home tired and hungry to a noisy, messy house, a frazzled spouse, and nothing in the oven, that you get the chance to be all you can be. People who get married for the highs, for Scenario #1, will surely be quite disappointed when they get scenario #2, and often get out of the marriage faster than you can say alimony.
But people who go into marriage expecting Scenario #2, welcoming #2 because it will give them an opportunity to grow and develop into better people, are not fazed by #2, and are overjoyed and thankful when they encounter #1.
"According to the effort is the reward."
The same goes for any other meaningful endeavor. If we approach situations looking for comfort, ease, and convenience, we will usually be disappointed as those rosy benefits inevitably fade, and we would probably be better desisting from entering the relationship in the first place. But if we enter a relationship looking for what we can give, how we can push ourselves, and how we can grow, we will discover that those relationships bring immeasurable joy.
This idea is outlined in Ethics of Our Father. "Ben Heh-Heh used to say: According to the effort is the reward" (Ethics 5:22). The modern equivalent of this dictum would be, "No pain, no gain." If we don't challenge ourselves, if we stay away from any situation which will bring difficulties with it, we won't have to expend "too much" effort, but we won't reap too much reward either. Looking forward to the challenging moments in life seems to work much better than constantly trying to avoid them.
Take two challenges and call me in the morning!