I recently celebrated my 31st birthday. It’s not the most auspicious birthday, but it does mean the earth revolved around the sun one more time and I got to enjoy greetings and gifts from family and friends.
Many people asked, “How does it feel to be 31?”, to which I replied that it doesn’t feel any different to being 30. However, if you asked me how this birthday differed from my last, I can give a much more extensive answer. And that’s the thing with birthdays. We all become so focussed on this one special day, that we sometimes forget the journey we took the whole year to get there.
However, for now I am going to discuss something that happened at school the Thursday before my birthday. My colleague, Natasha Foley, and I hosted a ‘Career Awareness Evening’ for the Grade 10s at Herzlia High School. As we are Life Orientation teachers, we thought it was important for them to orientate themselves about where they are going and how they are preparing for adulthood (something I sometimes think I still have to master!). When we introduced the evening to them a few days before, they all thought we were going to see lawyers and accountants, engineers and investment bankers – what most of them (and probably most of us) would consider to be ‘successful’ individuals. However, the students were surprised that instead of these more conventional ‘professionals’, the speakers represented a wide spectrum of unusual occupations. We had a cardiologist, a puppeteer, a lecturer, a make-up artist, a virologist and our very own Councillor Stuart Diamond, among others.
It was a really interesting group of people who had all made big transitions in their lives. The major theme across most of the speakers was that they did not plan to get to where they were. Instead, they were guided there by chance, and found that all the skills they had picked up along the way had prepared them for the positions they now held. It also appears that the traditional career structure that we have always taken for granted, the ‘nine-to-five’, so to speak, is also going to become less and less prevalent. Business Tech says that the alternative is the emergence of the ‘gig’ economy, the labour market characterised by freelance, flexible and on-demand work. Instead of being paid a regular salary, “workers are paid for each ‘gig’ they do, such as a car journey, food delivery or a cleaning job.” Amanda Arumugam, senior associate at Bowmans, states that the gig economy has actually taken over the world, most people not fully realising the impact that it has. The evening was a great success and I think many of the students now understand how unpredictable life is. Not only are careers changing due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but now our economy is too. This is quite a lot to take into mind when planning a future. Remember, these are 15/16 year olds — they are planning for a career they may get when they’re about 22-25.
This raises the question of the effectiveness of planning our lives — should we expect things to go the way we want them to?
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner, the liturgy often speaks to the planning of life and how we cannot comprehend what will happen to us in the future. We are constantly reminded that we are not in total control of our fate. We pray our sins will be forgiven, the slates wiped clean so we can start the year afresh. We beat our hands against our hearts when we say Ashamnu for each transgression listed, symbolically punishing the heart for being responsible for leading us to sins of greed, lust and anger.
There’s a project called ‘At the Well’, a women’s Jewish spirituality and wellness website. They offer a different version of the Ashamnu prayer, which I think is more appropriate in a modern context. The verse that I relate to the most is “(w)e have held others to unrealistic expectations”. I understand this not only to speak to our transgression of this to other people, but also to the standards to which we hold ourselves. We often have expectations of what we are supposed to do and who we are supposed to be. How much further can I climb up the corporate and social ladder? How much weight should I lose this year?
How many times should I go to Shul? We batter and beat ourselves mentally when we have failed to accomplish what we set out to do at the beginning of a certain time period, whether it’s an annual goal (e.g. our birthday or Yom Kippur) or a goal we have set from our teenage years. When I look at what I’ve done in the past year, I try not to count the times I did not accomplish what I set out to do, or where I should have been in my 30-year-old mind. Instead, I look at how I have changed and how the many twists and turns of the year’s journey have shaped my current and my future self. My hope is that next year when, please G-d, I have my 32nd birthday, I will be able to look back and see where I have succeeded and grown.
I wish everyone a G’mar Chatima Tova and a meaningful fast