Lying on a hammock strung between two palm trees on a tiny Caribbean island, I was in paradise. My 19-year-old son Yisrael and I had the island to ourselves, save for a single family of natives who inhabited three thatched-roofed huts on the east side of the island. A tropical breeze blew, the ocean water was crystal clear, the beach was white sand, and the only ones intruding on our space were eleven pelicans bobbing up and down in the sea nearby.
We chose this island, with no tourists, no noise, no encroachment of civilization.
No, this was not a dream. In Panama to lecture, I had taken off one day to see the beauty of that tropical paradise. Yisrael and I had travelled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle two and a half hours through the rain forest to Panama’s eastern coast, and then taken a boat to the San Blas Islands. Given our choice of any one of the 350 islands, we had chosen this one, with no tourists, no noise, no encroachment of civilization. Even the Internet could not penetrate the spell of unspoiled tranquility in this magical domain that – for one glorious day – belonged entirely to us.
After enjoying the lunch packed by our Panama City hostess, Yisrael and I went snorkeling. The island was surrounded by coral reefs, home to a myriad of magnificent tropical fish. Afterwards, I lay down in the hammock while Yisrael set off to walk around the perimeter of the island.
The pinnacle of peace, I thought to myself. It doesn’t get better than this. I lay there listening to the breeze blow through the palm trees, finally freed from all pressures, work, schedules, and stress. It doesn’t get better than this. My mind kept playing those words like the chorus of a hit song on perpetual replay. It doesn’t get better than this.
I, however, am one of those persons who takes her emotional pulse every half hour. And when I looked at the reading, I was shocked by what it registered: I wasn’t happy. Content, yes. Relaxed, supremely! But happy? No. How could that be? I was living my tropical fantasy. How could I not be happy?
I mulled over this bizarre emotional malfunction until Yisrael returned. It was his turn on the hammock. I surrendered it and started my own walk around the island. I waded in the ideal-temperature water, watched the pelicans nose-diving for fish, found a gorgeous large shell, and enjoyed the island-dotted ocean vista. I was blown away and grateful to God that I was in this exotic place, more fitting for a novel than a memoir. But why was I not experiencing the happiness that usually lights up my heart in my noisy, disturbance-filled, phone-ringing, doorbell-ringing, email-besieged home?
I arrived back at the hammock and suggested to Yisrael that we go snorkeling again. We donned our masks and dove in. From behind a large brain coral emerged a fish whose front third was iridescent turquoise-blue. This one definitely got the prize for “Fish of the Day.” I wanted Yisrael to see it. I swam over to him, tapped his arm, gestured for him to follow me, and with my index finger pointed to the Beauty Queen fish. He spotted it and, although snorkeling mouthpieces do not permit smiling, he gave me a thumbs-up. We were sharing the experience.
At that moment, happiness erupted in my heart like a geyser.
Happiness & Connection
The contemporary sage Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe wrote: “All happiness comes from connection.”
Not from acquiring – even the latest IPad. Not from physical pleasure – even the world’s best chocolate by the third bite goes bland. Not from tranquility – even on an isolated island. Not from accomplishment – even your promotion to the top of the corporate ladder. Not from realizing your fantasies – I did and it wasn’t enough.
If you want happiness, seek connection.
It’s no coincidence that as the number of Americans living alone has skyrocketed so has the number of Americans taking anti-depressants.
Of course, a person can live alone and still be deeply connected to other people. My widowed, 95-year-old mother-in-law lives alone, and on Mother’s Day she is bombarded with cards not only from her children and grandchildren, but also from her nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and nephews, friends half her age (her own contemporaries have died), fellow volunteers at the hospital gift shop, and even the dentist divorced by her niece 20 years ago with whom Mom still maintains a fond relationship. And Mom Rigler, at 95, is perky, youthful, and … happy.
Okay, we got the formula: Connection=Happiness. But how do we forge connections?
The Hebrew word for love is ahava, which comes from the root word meaning, “to give.” Real love results from giving.
My mother-in-law has forged all those connections by a lifetime of giving: smiles, compliments, birthday cards, phone calls, hugs, a spare ticket to the opera, and (perhaps most potent of all) heartfelt thanks. Yesterday, coming out of her Jerusalem hotel room (Yes, she made the trip from Los Angels at 95 years of age!), we passed the housekeeper standing by her cart filled with clean sheets and towels. I nodded and gave a perfunctory, “Todah.” Mom Rigler, on the other hand, in a voice so warm it could melt steel and a tone most of us reserve for the love of our lives, said, “Thank you so much, dear.” The maid smiled as if she had received a $10 tip.
So if you want to find real, lasting paradise, here’s Judaism’s foolproof formula: Giving=connection=happiness.
It works even under water, even if all you’re giving is the sight of a beautiful fish.