“Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” Karl Barth
I recently realized that asking my elderly mother, whose short term memory is fading, what she had been up to doing that day or the previous week frustrated both of us. She couldn’t remember and would either be apologetic or distressed that she was unable to answer me.
My mother is a highly successful educator who has spent her entire life constantly busy: accomplishing tasks, raising a family, solving problems, writing poetry, preparing lesson plans, creating and leading community organizations, writing letters to the editor, traveling the world, and meeting intellectual and interpersonal challenges.
Up until the end of last year, she also taught a class on capitalism for the lifelong learning program at her retirement home. Her difficulty in recalling activities that happened even earlier in the day made my mother feel unproductive and unnecessary.
Gloria Steinem once said that we are human doings, not human beings. My question had continually reinforced that sad misconception that a person is not worthwhile if he or she is not doing something meaningful.
That made me recognize the fact that I had to ask a different question.
I chose to ask her instead: “What gave you joy today?”
That question taps into her senses and emotions, where the memory is lodged. She can tell me about a beautiful flower or scene, a nice meal, a sunny day, a pleasant walk, or a visit with a friend or family. She doesn’t have to worry about remembering anything to “report” when we speak on the phone every Sunday evening. She simply has to focus on what made her happy that day.
Asking my mother about what gives her joy also helps me to focus on my own answer to that question. I can relinquish the impulse to list and categorize my tasks, challenges and accomplishments. Instead, I can focus on what I am grateful for and most enjoy.
I can tell her about something funny that one of my granddaughters said, about the flowers blooming in my garden, about a show or movie I enjoyed, a book I’m reading, or my cats’ most recent adventures. I can also ask her advice about issues with training and classroom management, since she is an expert on those things. Her long-term memory is just fine.
Always, at the top of the list, what gives me joy and for which I am most grateful is the opportunity to talk with my mother. She lives far away, she is frail and failing, and our connection means the world to me. I treasure every moment we have together.
I hope that this helps her feel how important she is and will always be- to me, to my family, and to all of the students, colleagues, friends and community members for whom she has been a coach, a confidante, an advocate, a model and a mensch. We count on her warmth, her knowledge and intelligence, her passion about social issues, her support and her love. My mother gives us joy.
So, what gave you joy today?
May your learning be sweet.