It’s amazing how things can pull us back to our childhoods. A certain smell, a sound, maybe a book we were read when we were young. If it’s a good memory, those things make us smile and perhaps long for the days gone by. I had such a feeling not too long ago when I was inspired to write this piece by one of the most mundane topics I can think of: yogurt.
As a kid most of us probably ate more yogurt than we do as adults, or at least we’re eating it differently than when we were kids. I don’t know if Greek yogurt had even been invented when I was a kid (shortly after the fall of ancient Greece.) Now it’s all about acidophilus (I spelled that right by accident) and good bacteria and intestinal wellness. Yukkkk!
When I was a kid my favorite part of yogurt was stirring it up and getting to the sweet jelly syrup at the bottom. When I saw a “fruit on the bottom” yogurt in the store recently, I decided to treat myself to the thing I haven’t had in many years. It was eye-opening.
When I peeled back the cover, I didn’t find the silky-smooth vanilla yogurt so popular with kids these days because it comes with chocolates or cookies to mix in. Instead, under a rather gross layer of clear liquid which wheyed heavily on my mind as a child, sat a mass of grayish-whitish yogurt looking plain and rather unappetizing. As I dug my spoon into it, aiming for the sweet, colorful fruit layer, I felt drawn back in time to when I was a child doing this.
I was honestly almost giddy as I anticipated the fun and flavor of this treat. I vaguely remembered deciding how much I would mix in to each part. Sometimes I would only mix in a little so that I would have a more intense flavor experience at the end. Sometimes I would mix it all up evenly as the manufacturers would expect, but it was always up to me how I would do it. I was in control of my tasting destiny and it was an intense feeling.
Now, though, as an older person, a little more experienced, and maybe a little more thoughtful, I pondered why it was such a powerful memory for me. What made this act so pleasurable? Yogurt manufacturers have already helped us by putting out pre-blended yogurts, with the flavor evenly distributed throughout. It’s like palate perfection, and yet I’m left somewhat cold by them. (No pun intended.)
I started to think that maybe we don’t enjoy things when they’re too easy; too perfect. We get more pleasure when we work for it, like mixing up the flavor in the yogurt. Some spoons will be sweeter and some more bland but the variety makes for a more interesting existence.
I’m sure at some point in our lives we’ve all asked aloud, “Why can’t things just be easy?!” Or, “Why is everything an uphill battle?” We imagine that a life without stress would be the most pleasurable one. But it isn’t true.
I’m sure you know the age-old example of the butterfly’s struggle to exit the cocoon, and how a person once cut the cocoon off to help the butterfly and instead of flying away it died. The person didn’t realize that the pressing and pushing of the butterfly through the cocoon removed the coating weighing down its wings and enabled it to enter the next stage of its life.
We don’t live despite our struggles, but because of them. Each adversity we face and overcome, whether by rising to the challenge or just by not crumpling, builds up who we are and prepares us for the next stage of our existence, even if it’s just the next day we have to face.
Someone told me an amazing story. Her son had died in a car accident at the too-young age of 19. A couple years later, she was at a wedding and an old classmate of his recognized her. “How are you Mrs. Green? I haven’t seen Chaim in years. What’s he up to these days?” She stood there frozen for a moment. It may have been only two seconds but it seemed like an eternity too her as her mind raced. She realized that if she told this young man what had happened she would not only make him feel bad, but put a damper on the entire wedding for him, and it would likely spill over to others.
“Oh, hello!” she replied. “Listen, I don’t have the time right now at the chasuna, but please call Ezzy Stein tomorrow. Tell him we spoke tonight. He’ll update you on what Chaim is up to now and I’m sure you’ll want to hear about it.” The bochur said OK and moved on. A week later, she received a note from him thanking her for her sensitivity. He expressed his sorrow at Chaim’s passing but wonderment at her presence of mind and strength to not make him regret the question on the spot. Her determination not to hurt someone led to her being given the Siyata D’shmaya to answer as she did, and it was a lesson she never forgot. It’s true, the challenges we face are important for growth, but there’s one more aspect.
Those moments when things aren’t perfectly smooth; when we have to mix it up and try to get to the sweetness, those are the ones that keep us going. They make life interesting and give us the chance to find and express our inner strength. They’re necessary, inspiring, and the ones we’ll remember fondly when we look back at them years down the road.
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