Dayenu

Have you noticed how subtly, but pervasively, some of us become conditioned to be happy with crumbs, accepting far less from the banquet of life than we may want, or even than may be available?

In my case, I recognize that this training began in my earliest childhood, as the result of my mother’s severe psychological problems. Anything I looked forward to, anything I really wanted, she found a way to make unpleasant or to turn into an unhappy experience. You think your birthday should be special, maybe a few playmates over for a small party? Think again. “I don’t choose to accept responsibility for anyone else’s children in my house.”

If I admired some small item in a shop window, wishing someone might think enough of me to buy it for a present, I might very well find it at home – on my mother’s dresser, after she bought it for herself and preened over her lovely new figurine. Primary school graduation, all the girls dressing up in pretty new clothes and patent leather party shoes? “It’s a school day. You wear your sturdy Oxfords, no buts and no arguments, do you hear me!”

I learned to be grateful for a day without being repeatedly slapped, for an hour alone with my grandfather, just going for a walk around the neighborhood (“You haven’t earned the right to go to the zoo with him this week, you’ve been far too much trouble to me”). I learned to accept that only grownups got new clothes from the store; mine were roughly sewn together from one of three basic patterns and handed to me with, “I worked hard to make this for you, don’t you dare complain that it looks like all your others. It’s a different color. That’s more than enough. The children in Africa are lucky if they have any clothes at all!” Those children in Africa were lucky if they had food, or a warm bed, or a place to get out of the rain, or…

I wanted to visit those children in Africa, to see if their lives were really so bad. Somehow, even at only five or six or seven years of age, I suspected that many of them had loving parents and enough to eat and maybe they even got presents sometimes, and hugs and kisses instead of punishments.

If we’re diligent about maturing, about taking responsibility for ourselves and who we become, we grow out of a variety of early conditions to become decent, engaged, thoughtful people. We stop blaming our bad decisions on our parents’ inadequacies, we learn from our mistakes, and we move forward. But underneath, all too often, we retain a fundamental attitude that we must feel satisfied with crumbs.

Don’t misunderstand – I fully support approaching each day with “an attitude of gratitude” for the many small positives to be found in it. I’m amused by the antics of the rabbits in the pasture. I smile at my confused (or misnamed?) Christmas cactus which stayed plain at that holiday, but is now flowering for Easter. I’m quietly, inwardly thankful for the opportunity to work once more at a job I enjoy, after years of toil in a less rewarding environment.

At Easter

At Easter

At the same time, I recognize that I spent many more years in that previous, stressful workplace than perhaps I “should have” done, because I was (am still?) conditioned to accept a small salad plate from life’s banquet rather than grabbing a big dinner plate and seeing that it is filled. The latter behavior is so often called greedy, selfish, and thoughtless of the needs of others.

If what one is going after falls in the material world – money, possessions, power – then yes, trying to get as much as possible for oneself may well be greedy and selfish. Lord knows I can’t comprehend how people already making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year can think they are also entitled to bonuses! Some, like Bill Gates or Michael J Fox, turn around and give back a generous portion of what they acquire, and thereby help the rest of us. I am thankful for them, and their charitable foundations. Too many others grab for, demand, and keep outrageous salaries, even insisting they be paid after they’ve been asked to resign. The public face of this activity is labeled “buying out a contract.” I think it is purely obscene. We working folks who don’t perform to standard get fired, not paid to leave. Why should it be any different just because one has an exalted position with an already very generous pay rate?

But I’m not talking about the material world, when I say we’re conditioned to settle for less. I’m not even talking about the emotional world, or the necessity of accepting that very few relationships are perfect, that we cannot count on another to “make me happy.”

I’m reflecting instead on the extent to which we cut ourselves off from fulfilled happiness by telling ourselves we do not need, are not entitled to, don’t have the right to, should not want or expect that fulfillment. In a portion of the Seder, the Jewish celebration of Passover (and the ritual being observed by Jesus at the Last Supper) a litany of blessings is recited, and after each step in the path to freedom the sentiment is expressed “Dayenu = It would have been enough.” If God had done just X, it would have been enough. If God had done just X+Y it would have been enough. If God had done just X+Y+Z it would have been enough.

I learn from this ritual that being grateful for what I have need not prevent me from welcoming more into my life. That I want more does not say I don’t value what I have. Only the subtle, pervasive, underlying conditioning of unworthiness so many of us have absorbed dictates that I should not try for gold, now that I have silver in hand.

I have silver, and rubies, and ambrosia, a wealth of gifts of the spirit. Dayenu. I appreciate how much that means to, is sought after by, people who have less. I happily share my blessings as best I can. And I’m going for more.

Reaching for a full platter does not mean I appreciate my present plate any the less. It does mean I’ve decided not to hang back, not to duck and cover, not to “settle” before I must do so. Maybe I’ll trip. Maybe I’ll fail. Maybe I will, in the end, have neither gold nor silver. But as a former prisoner and student of mine once wrote, “Mighty Casey, he struck out. What does it feel like to get into the game?”

I’m going to find out! And whatever the outcome, it will be enough. Dayenu.

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One Response to “Dayenu”

  1. Ron Maltais Says:

    This is your most personal and touching entry to date. To some extent it resonated with my own experience. Thanks for your reflections.

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