Does anybody actually enjoy life?
About 70 years ago, two little French kids found themselves under a table looking up at a German soldier who was asking the curly headed child, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” He asked this because that child had just told the other, based on what the soldier was saying a minute ago, that the soldier was thirsty and wanted some water. This child knew what the soldier was saying because, unlike the other child under the table, he spoke Yiddish. This child knew Yiddish because that’s what European Jews spoke at home back in the day.
In other words, this soldier was asking that French child if he was Jewish by asking him if he knew German. And when that little kid slowly shook his head no, the soldier must have figured he was lying, and that this child was what he and his fellow soldiers were looking for in that apartment building that morning.
So maybe the soldier was tired. Or maybe he was lazy, or negligent. Perhaps he was mad at his superior, and didn’t feel like giving him another notch in his unit’s belt. Or maybe this was the soldier’s moment of compassion. We will never know why he simply shook his head and walked away that morning, leaving those petrified children behind to live another day. But, unlike Anne Frank and millions of other children in hiding during the war, and the families who hid them (e.g., the other kid and his family), these two children did make it.
Fifteen years later, the curly headed kid was grown up and had a child of his own. That was me. I’ll tell you one of the salient memories of my upbringing: No matter what trouble I caused my dad, no matter what I pulled on him (and I cringe when I think back on all the shit I pulled, especially as a teenager), no matter how much I complained about school or friends or spending my weekends cleaning up the house and fixing up the yard as if I were a victim of forced labor, he always reacted the same way–he laughed. It wasn’t mocking laughter or sardonic laughter. It was a happy laugh, as if I was really being funny. It pissed me off, but that only got him to laugh harder.
It wasn’t until I was almost in college that I even knew what a Holocaust survivor was, and that my dad was one of them. Because he was so young at the time–seven years old when France was liberated–he is now one of the last remaining survivors with any memory of the Nazi occupation. Here he is recently giving a talk at the Holocaust Museum in Washington:
My dad doesn’t always laugh or even smile. He has gone through the same ups and downs as anyone. He was especially hard hit by the loss of my mom–his wife of 47 years. But the look on his face here is his default countenance, a hint of a smile, as if the slightest thing could send him into laughter.
I now realize that my dad was laughing because he could, because all the little shit that we think is important or crucial or oh-my-god-now-what is small potatoes compared to the wonderful opportunity to fret about it. The unwitting gift of that German soldier was not just a life, but an appreciation of what life enables us to experience–the good and the bad.
My dad truly enjoys his life.
And that life, and appreciation, was a gift to his generations, too. When my kids came along, I found myself doing the same thing–laughing as much when they were peeved as when they were cheery. At first, it was probably the unconscious mimicry of behavior modeled by my dad. But when I thought about why it seemed so natural for me to laugh off their occasional tantrums as easily as I rejoiced in their cheer, I realized that it was precisely because my kids were capable of frustration, and joy, and the full spectrum of childhood experiences, reactions, and emotions. They were fully alive, and that made me so happy I literally could not contain myself.
I don’t know how far this gets passed down. I hope my kids enjoy their lives; they seem to, so far. I don’t think I can make them or anyone happy, even myself. I wish I could tell you how to be happy. Maybe it’s a realization. Maybe it’s a choice. Maybe it’s how we’re wired. Maybe it’s a close call, where you are staring death in the face and it chooses for mysterious reasons to shrug and walk away, that gets you to permanently see things in another light. I don’t have the answer to that. But I can answer your question: Yes, I actually enjoy life.
Credit goes to: Marc Hodak