The phrase, “If not now when?” keeps running through my mind when I tell myself it’s time to have a happy life.
I search the phrase online and find this was part of a statement made by Rabbi Hillel, one of the most important sages and scholars in Jewish history. He lived in Jerusalem at the time of Herod and was born in 110 BC. He is popularly known as the author of two sayings: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’?” and “If not now, when?” He is also known for the expression of the ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
These statements are fascinating, and part of the fascination is that they are seemingly intertwined. We must be for ourselves but not only for ourselves and if not now when? That sounds like a fine balance to me: we must take care of ourselves and nurture ourselves, but a life with only self to consider, what kind of life would that be? We only know ourselves as we interact and communicate with other people. We know ourselves as we are mirrored in the eyes and hearts of others. We measure who we are by how much we love others, and we measure how much progress we are making when we look to see how patient or impatient we are. Every action we take is measured by how we interact with others.
Through our relationships we come to know ourselves and who we are. Our relationships bring us joy and support and learning experiences. If we want to know how we’re doing, we simply need to look at how our relationships are going. Improving our relationships is simple: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” It sounds too simple, but it’s true. Treat others as you would like to be treated, and at the very least you will love the face that looks out at you in the mirror every morning.
Could the secret of having a happy life be that simple? Be for yourself, meaning taking good care and loving yourself while being good to others as well? Simple but not always easy. A fine line is called for here since too much in either direction leads to a life out of balance. Too much care for yourself to the detriment of others is not happiness, and too much care of others to the detriment of yourself is not happiness either. That’s the trick: finding the balance, and I think that can only be done by trial and error and experience. Maya Angelou says, “When we know better, we do better.” I think that sums up how we learn what makes us and others happy. It’s also wonderful because it says there is no judgment necessary.
We all deserve, as our constitution says, “the pursuit of happiness,” and we owe it to ourselves to figure out what makes us happy, for when we’re happy we are a blessing to the world and nicer to be around.
D.H. Laurence said, “Sometimes snakes can’t slough. They can’t burst their old skin. They go sick and die within the old skin.” We are like snakes in this way. As soon as our old ways outlive their usefulness, if we don’t let them go, something in us dies. And this too is part of finding happiness, letting the past go, letting go of all the memories of hurts, old conversations, bad behaviors, and anything else that doesn’t serve us well. We are different people now. Each day we wake up and create a new day. If we didn’t like a situation 10 years ago or even yesterday, why would we like it any better today? If we continue to let the past hurt us, what we are doing is bringing into our life exactly what we don’t want when we allow these memories space in our minds. Wish the memories well and on their way.
It’s like people who taste sour milk and go and taste it again to make sure it’s sour or perhaps want you to taste it too just to make sure it’s sour. We already know it’s sour. We don’t have to keep going back again and again for another taste.
Having a balance between being for yourself and for others, recreating your life every day just the way you would like to live it, and putting the past to rest seem to be a good recipe for a happy life. I say there’s no time like the present! If not now when?