In my lifetime, I have had several significant changes that in a sense made me start “anew.” Leaving the cloistered world of Jewish Day School education to go to City College; moving to Israel from comfortable America; changing my academic research and teaching discipline mid-career from Political Science to Communications; and so on. Which gets me thinking – as we enter the Jewish NEW Year – about the concept of “new” in our life.
Human beings like to feel comfortable, another word for “habitual.” Radical change – except for those whose lives are truly miserable – is not something sought after. Think of the expression “tried and true.” That doesn’t merely mean that based on past experience it’s the correct thing to do (or that “it works”); it can also mean that what we have done in the past is the “true me.”
Unfortunately, people also tend to get bored doing the same thing over and over again. Assembly-line work is definitely alienating (a la Charley Chaplin’s hilarious Modern Times scene where he can’t keep up with the objects flying by). Office work can also be mind-numbing. Thus, at some point we need to find something “new.” But that runs the gamut from the trivial to the truly life-altering.
The question for each of us is finding the right balance between doing something new and continuing the tried and true. A lot depends on personality: some are thrill seekers; others, safe and sound bodies. Some are very good at finding the right amount of “new” by themselves; others need some outside push.
Which is where a New Year comes into play. We are well aware that Rosh Hashana or January 1 do not mark something really “new.” They mainly signify starting the same old cycle (“calendar”) all over again. But what they do offer is the opportunity for each of us to really think about whether – and to what extent – we do want to have something “new” in our life.
Once a year is obviously not enough, so we invent other “new-thinking” devices: a birthday; an anniversary. These are what I would call “potential-new”: getting us to consider what could be new the coming year, if we so willed it. Then there are the “already-new” events: engagement party, wedding, housewarming: these symbolize that we have already decided and undertaken to begin something new – but that still leaves the question of how to “manage” this new life.
Overall, there are three main “new” events in our life: marriage; children; retirement. (Of course, they can include some variations: divorce; empty nesting; spouse’s passing.) In each of these, we are never completely ready – or fully cognizant – of what this “new” entails, but we are willing to jump in. However, there are two differences between the first two and the third. First, marriage and children are almost always events that we have control over (excepting shotgun weddings and pregnancy “mistakes”). On the other hand, retirement is largely “forced” on us by law or physical/mental frailty.
That’s the bad news. The second difference is better news: whereas marriage and children restrict our ability to pursue the “new,” retirement opens up a whole world of new opportunities, without many of the life encumbrances we had pre-retirement. For the thrill- seeking types, that’s great; for more conservative individuals it can be a big problem because after 65-75 years of habitual life, it isn’t easy to switch to new types of activity, new outlooks, new ways of looking at our personal world.
The bottom line: we all hope to retire someday (that’s much better than the alternative, except for the “lucky” few who want to, and can, work until they drop). That’s a new situation – but it won’t be very successful unless we prepare ourselves way ahead of time psychologically and practically (hobbies; interests; etc.). And if already the Jewish New Year, then this coming one also happens to be a once-in-seven “Shmitta” year when traditionally the land lies fallow, and we all take a long rest from work. A good time as any to think not only of the coming year but future retirement as well, for a successful and fruitful new start.