This week, a man, all of a sudden, gets severe chest pains and is rushed to the hospital. The doctors examine him and find he’s had a massive heart attack, and one of his coronary arteries is nearly 100% blocked.
Without quick medical action, including the placement of a stent in his artery, and G-d’s mercy, this person would’ve likely been dead that day.
This is a true story, and one that repeats for hundreds of thousands of people a year in the United States, and many people are not fortunate enough to live to tell about it.
Of course, this can happen to literally anyone, at any time. However, in this case, it was a big corporate executive that was hard at work at his responsible, fast-paced, and stressful job when he had the heart attack.
The funny thing is, he didn’t even need to be working anymore. He was at retirement age and had a net worth for which even someone used to the “good life” could continue to live like a king for the duration. I wondered to myself, why doesn’t someone like this just look after their health, and spend their time enjoying their family and their life?
Delving into it more, I came to understood that like many people, this very successful executive looks at life as a “scorecard,” wherein he measures his achievements, including his wealth, against his peers. And while he’s done extremely well by any standard measure, as we know there is always someone stronger, smarter, and richer to make us feel “small” in comparison.
Yesterday, speaking to someone I highly respect, they quoted from the Talmud (Kohelet Rabba 1:13) that “he who has 100 will want 200, and he who has 200 will want 400.” In other words, no matter how much some people have, it feels like it’s just never enough! Hence, the wisdom of our sages (Pirkei Avot 4:1) who state: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.”
Certainly, there is a standard of living that guides what we can consider enough to live comfortably in our times. Of course today, with all the advancements technologically, medically, and so on, this is probably a much higher standard than our parents, grandparents, and others had before us. But even so, the standard of living well or comfortably has for a long time seemed almost irrelevant. In the Jewish community, “Keeping up with the Joneses” could easily be replaced with keeping up with the Cohens, Katzes, and Kaplans.
Already as a young adult, growing up in a relatively affluent Jewish community, I remember many highly accomplished and successful people, who never really seemed satisfied, always wanting the ephemeral fix of “more.” They fiercely competed with each other–whether in terms of who had the newer and bigger house, nicer car, more fashionable clothing and accessories, and the grandest bar mitzvah, wedding, or what have you.
Perhaps spurred by millennia of anti-Semitism and persecution, materialism meant “success.” However, this drive extended to who was more outwardly religious as well. For example, those that simply “shukled” in shul the most were perceived as being more pious than others who were less demonstrative in the community. Signs and symbols started to replace actual caring, giving, loving, faith, and living.
In short, it was not about doing your best in life, but rather becoming a “big macher” in the community. It was painful to see synagogue visitors actually ejected from seats if they sat in the “wrong seat.” The result of all this shallowness was that being a hard-working, G-d fearing and observant Jew, and decent family man was no longer credentials enough to get you a seat at the Jewish communal table.
Certainly, passion for being your best, determination to succeed, and even some healthy competition are important factors in driving our own success as well as societal progress, but when keeping up with that scorecard against others becomes the essence of your own self-worth then things have gone too far and way off course.
We each have our mission, strengths, challenges, and so forth. It’s okay in life, if someone else has more of something (money, friends, honor, whatever). Everyone has their own “basket in life” as my father taught me, “and you wouldn’t want to change baskets with anyone else.”
For the guy who almost worked himself to death this week, I think the lessons are: one, that money can’t buy health; and two, if your measure of success is somebody else’s life achievements and bank account, then you’ve missed the whole point of what “success” is and your purpose of being here to begin with.