Of Carob Trees and Loneliness

A story from ancient Jewish wisdom tells of a traveller who came across an elderly man planting a carob tree. Since carob trees can take more than twenty years to bear fruit, the passer-by suggested that the man’s work was pointless; he would no longer be there to enjoy the tree’s fruit. The older man responded that he was not planting for himself but for his descendants. Though he might not be a direct beneficiary, generations to come would appreciate his work.

I rarely hear concerns anymore about saddling our children with gargantuan national debt. Not only is the number incomprehensibly  enormous, but our universe as it relates to time has shrunk. Through ways both overt and subtle, our culture encourages us to live in the moment, and to elevate the fleeting over the long-lasting.

Two newspaper reports I read this week were not meant to be commentaries on each other, yet it is worthwhile to juxtapose them. One described how, as the baby-boomer generation ages, its members are more likely to be alone than the generations before them. Freedom not to marry, to divorce, to have few or no children seems far less promising to a lonely seventy-year-old than it did to a self-centered thirty-something.

A second article spoke of companies needing to train young employees on basic social skills such as looking customers and co-workers in the eye and interacting with others. Is an advanced degree necessary to extrapolate that people who can’t form even the most basic connections at twenty are going to be in trouble as they age?

We may not want to return to a time when marriages were forced on unwilling children in order to cement family dynasties and fortunes, yet we don’t seem to be facing improved happiness levels in a culture that promotes thinking only of oneself and even that only in the present. When our children were young, my husband and I frequently received comments as we were out and about. In Southern California the comments were usually negative and focused on our lack of responsibility in bringing more than “our share” of children into the world. In contrast, when we camped in Utah one summer, numerous people stopped to tell us how much joy we would have in the future, even if we would often be overwhelmed in the present.

The time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas tends to shine a light on family relationships, both positive or negative. Beloved traditions as well as long-standing problem areas surface. While the latter may demand finesse and delicate handling, perhaps we should encourage younger family members to take some time and project twenty, thirty and fifty years down the road. Let’s encourage them to ask the following questions: If I cherish family relationships, warts and all, what steps do I need to take today so that I will have family and friends in the future?  Just as others took the time and accepted the responsibility to marry and have children, providing me with life and family, what is my obligation to future generations?

3 thoughts on “Of Carob Trees and Loneliness”

  1. Dear Susan,

    I so enjoy your outlook on life and family relationships and appreciate your insight into basic human nature.

    After reading today’s posting, I contemplated about my own family. We are blessed to have two sons who are married to wonderful girls that have given us seven beautiful grandchildren. That being said, we have found our lives to be somewhat different than we had expected. Neither son lives near us and we are the primary travellers for family visits. We are retired and live in the family home. Neither son rarely has the time or the energy to pack up their families and head our way. One son, the father of five, dislikes our state and the cost of travel. The other has our precious, ‘special needs’ grandson and lives near his in-laws who are a blessing to his family. That puts us on the road to keep the ties that bind ‘tight’. Both sons ended up in other states for college and work and never thought to move back ‘home’. This is a natural state of affairs for their generation which follows the available jobs across the country. Sadly, that fact has contributed to the lack of generational bonding unless you work diligently to maintain the ‘ties that bind’. The ‘Father Knows Best’ ideal of family unity has been lost due to economic and social changes.

    So, at 68, we have decided to take our 87 year old mother and move to Hawaii for our own pleasure and health. Everyone is thrilled because we will send for them once a year to visit the old folks. Who wouldn’t be excited? We will see them for a couple of weeks where we will share our piece of paradise and all will be more than happy to do so.

    While my ‘musings’ are a reflection on our lives, I am more than content with all that has transpired because all of our children and grandchildren are blessed to honor and worship The Ever Present Lord. Therein lies our comfort.

    Blessings to you and yours,
    Thia Adams

    1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Thia,
      I am eager to read Susan Lapin’s response to your beautiful, eloquent, and interesting letter but for me, what shines through is gratitude. And training oneself to feel and express gratitude is the highway to happiness. You’ve clearly learned this and practise it.
      For a young family to get itself packed and onto an airplane for a journey away from routine is far from simple and can take considerable incentive to make it happen. It sounds as if you are blessed with being able to provide that incentive. How lovely that you will be able to live the dream of being in beautiful surroundings and have your family visit.
      May the love you lavish on your mother be repaid with exorbitant interest in the love your children and grandchildren lavish on you.

    2. Cynthia, I second my husband’s response and wish you much joy and many new friends in Hawaii. Our children too, ended up far from where they grew up. Our relatively recent response was to sell our home and move closer to them. This, of course, can put tremendous pressure on kids if they want to move for any reason, but we are blessed with a bunch and we think it a safe bet that many will stay in our new area. For now, this is working well for us and them and we will see what the future brings.
      I agree that the “Father Knows Best” world is entirely different from now. Even the highway system has made a huge change. People used to mostly go to college near where they lived. We now circle the globe. But I do think one of the purposes of having older people in your life is that it encourages young people to at least get a glimpse that they won’t be twenty forever. That might make a difference in weighing up pros and cons of a career that has you constantly on the move or leaves you no time for family and friends.
      We each play the hand not only that was dealt to us but also that we dealt to ourselves. Very often ‘unintended consequences’ were perfectly visible to anyone looking with an unbiased mind. I think many Boomers’ loneliness should not be a surprise.
      Wishing you a joyous relocation.

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