How to Swim the Catalina Channel or Hayom

I’m always in the car, going to visit someone or to officiate at something. Wherever I go, I have a driving companion and his name is Tom.

Tom has an Irish accent. In a very charming way, he calls highways “motorways” and traffic circles “roundabouts.” When I need to turn, he gives me advance warning and reminds me immediately before the turn comes. When, nevertheless, I take a wrong turn, he patiently tells me to turn around as soon as possible. He never says that I’m stupid or criticizes me in any way. Worse comes to worse, when I still get it wrong, he tells me that he’s “recalculating.” And when I finally successfully get where I’m going, he triumphantly exclaims: “You have reached your destination.” This always makes me feel like a million bucks.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Tom is the voice on my GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System.

It’s too bad that living isn’t as easy as my GPS has made driving. But then, Tom is just a machine, and he only tells me how to go where I want to go. He doesn’t tell me what the destination is; I have to tell him that.

And in life, what’s even harder is when you know your destination but you get all mixed up about it because of the pressures of life.

I’d like to tell you a true story about what happens to us when we’re doing everything right but forget what we’re doing and where we’re going. It shows how tough life is.

Florence Chadwick set many international swimming records, including the record for swimming the English Channel between England and France. On July 4, 1952, Chadwick attempted to become the first woman to swim 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, from Catalina Island to the California coast. The ocean that day was ice cold; the fog was so thick that Chadwick could hardly see the support boats that followed her. Sharks prowled around her; several times, her support crew used rifles to drive away the sharks. Her mother and her trainer, who were in one of the support boats, encouraged her to keep going. However, after 15 hours and 55 minutes, with only a half-mile to go, she felt that she couldn’t go on, and asked to be taken out of the water.

Chadwick told a reporter, “Look, I’m not excusing myself, but if I could have seen land I know I could have made it.” The fog made her unable to see her goal, and it felt to her like she was getting nowhere.

I’m telling you this story because when we don’t have a goal, or when the vision of our goal is obscured, we lose our sense of purpose.

Okay, so I want to ask a very basic question: What’s the goal of your life? What’s the destination that you have set your GPS to? What’s on the other side of that shark-infested channel? It can’t just be what we call death. We’re in the Catalina Channel. It’s cold and the sharks are circling. What’s on the other side?

Today, I want you to sit back and think about your life, not the problems of the world but your life. I’d like to talk to you, on this day that is about time and the important dimensions of life, about how you feel about things, and especially about this getting older thing that a lot of us think so much about.

At this point in your life, what’s your goal? The answer for most of us, very simply, is happiness. We want to feel happy, which means that at any given moment or stage of life we want to feel good about things.

We talk about having the right to the pursuit of happiness.

You have to pursue happiness because it sure ain’t going to pursue you.

But how do you find happiness? What makes for a happy life?

There’s an incredible study that has been conducted for the last seventy-two years.  Since 1937, this study followed 268 healthy, well-adjusted Harvard sophomores through their lives, through war, careers, marriages, parenthood, divorces, grandparenthood, and old age. It was conducted and analyzed for 42 years by a psychiatrist named George Vaillant. These Harvard men seemed to have it made.  Many of them had come from the best families.  They already had proved their ambition and intelligence and ability to rise to the top.

And yet when all was said and done, Valliant found that it wasn’t money or fulfilled ambition or success that made them happy. The main thing that made them happy was the ability to adapt.

Think about it: How well do you adapt to the things that happen to you in life?  The question is not how much trouble you have in life.  You can have very few troubles and not be able to cope with them.  How do you respond to pain, to conflict, to uncertainty?

So I’m thinking about Florence Chadwick swimming the Catalina Channel in foggy weather. At least she had prepared herself for bad weather. Most of us don’t do this. Weather is a metaphor for life, and weather forecasting is like predicting life. The Persistence Method, “today equals tomorrow;” is the simplest way of producing a weather forecast. The persistence method assumes that the conditions at the time of the forecast will not change. If it’s sunny and 87 degrees today, the persistence method predicts that it will be sunny and 87 degrees tomorrow.

This is terrible weather forecasting.

Strangely enough, a lot of us use the persistence method in thinking about our futures. If things are a certain way today, we think they’ll be this way tomorrow. How simplistic and how mistaken can we be? Nothing stays the same. The only thing I can guarantee you about life is that things won’t stay the same. For good or for ill, everything changes. If things are good, we want them to stay the same, but life just isn’t like this. They might get better or they might get worse, but one way or another, things will change.

And since things are always changing, we have to adapt. All of us who are blessed with years have to adapt to getting older. So if our goal is happiness, we have to be able to adapt to life’s changes in order to stay happy.

More and more of us reach a healthy old age. It’s fantastic how medical science and our own better lifestyles have increased our years. But then comes a big question: What are you going to do with what my father calls these bonus years, these years over the Biblical three score and ten, these so-called “golden years.” To put it politely, these years are not always so golden. You get lead in your legs and iron becomes a problem and your hair goes silver but I’m not sure about the gold part.

You may not be able to do everything you always did. You’re not working, and each morning you wake up and you don’t know what to do. What’s your goal today? Where are you swimming? If you don’t have a goal, for your day, your week, your year, your life, you will begin to dry up.

It’s true that most of us slow down some as we get older. But slowing down should not mean stopping. Slowing down means getting to your goal at a slower pace, not giving up on your goal.

I’m thinking about that wonderful animated movie UP! in which Carl has lost his beloved wife Ellie and sits at home, refusing to do anything or go anywhere. When he does go on the adventure that he and Ellie had always dreamed of together, by tying their house to hundreds of balloons to go find their dream place, Paradise Falls in the wilds of South America, he runs into danger and obstacles. And so he sits in the house again, down in every way. Carl finds Ellie’s childhood scrapbook and discovers her mementos of their life together, and a final note from her thanking Carl for her adventure of marriage with him and encouragement for him to go on his own. And then he goes and starts a new life.

I’m not saying that it’s easy. The challenge, the new adventure, is to find the strength to go on, to adapt and go on. And if you can fulfill a dream that you had never realized, how wonderful is that?

I officiated at a funeral for a woman who threw herself into everything she did 100%. When her adult son got sick with a terminal disease, she brought him home and took care of him for two years until he passed away. And then she said, “I can’t do anything more for him so I’m going to see the world.” When she was traveling the world she did that with everything she had until she got too old to travel. So she threw herself 100 percent into golf until she couldn’t do that anymore and then she threw herself into bridge and she became a Life Master. What she exhibited was the courage to move on, to know where you are in life and to enjoy that stage to the fullest and to soak in the joy of achieving what she set out to do, but then, when the stage is over, to look forward and not back and move on.  This is a very special kind of courage.

In March, our congregational trip to Israel visited a friend of mine who lives in what the world calls a settlement called Tekoa on the West Bank. She has lived there happily for ten years and she’s raised her children who are now married and live there, too. I asked her, “What if Israel negotiates a deal and this town becomes Palestinian and you have to move?” And this wise woman of Tekoa, to cite a Biblical parallel, looked at me calmly and said, “Then I’ll move. Without regrets. Because I have lived happily here for ten wonderful years. And I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.”

I am in awe of her wisdom. Live one stage at a time. Enjoy each stage for what it is. 

Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest professional boxers of all time, faced a major contest against the younger, stronger George Foreman. Everyone was betting on Foreman. How could Ali possibly beat this opponent? His boxing had been based on dancing around the ring, but now he couldn’t dance any more. Ali realized that he needed to adapt to his age. During sparring sessions, he had people beat him up, so he got used to taking punishment. And then in Zaire, he used what he called the “Rope a Dope” strategy. Foreman became exhausted hitting Ali over and over again as he backed up into the ropes. Ali waited patiently, getting hit hard, until Foreman was so exhausted that Ali could beat him.

We need to adapt to our changing circumstances. We need to rope a dope life.

I had been talking for a while with the residents of Tower One and Tower East, Jewish assisted living facilities in New Haven. And one day I asked them about their Jewish biographies, about their lives in relationship to Judaism and Jewishness. I realized that for a number of different reasons, many of them had never become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and I asked them if they’d like to try. And six months later, 27 residents and family members became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It was a great day; pure happiness.

What was moving to me was that no one said: “I’m too old.” Nobody said, “What good would it do me now, at this point?” Twenty-seven Jewish people took the opportunity to change and connect and grow and were called to the Torah to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They chose to assert their identities as Jewish people in an especially meaningful way. They marked a special moment in their Jewish biographies. They re-biographed a moment in their Jewish lives when they were ready to reach their goal.

They were like Florence Chadwick, who later went back to the Catalina Channel and tried again. The fog was just as dense, but this time she made it. After almost fourteen hours, she reached the California shore, becoming the first woman every to complete the swim. We can relate to why she failed the first time. The fog stopped her because it made her lose sight of her goal. The people at the Towers had always wanted this goal, but things got foggy for all sorts of reasons. Now they kept swimming.

I’m not asking any of you to swim the Catalina Channel, though if you want to try, I’ll be in the boat with hot chocolate. I am asking you to think about the things you wanted to do and never did, like going to Paradise Falls or becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. You have to adapt as you get older, but adapt does not mean stop. It means appreciating life and its opportunities and doing the things you really want to do. What being older should mean is that you have developed the ability to adapt, and adaptation means happiness.

One of the great moments on the High Holidays is when we sing Hayom, this happy rollicking melody, and we repeat Hayom Hayom Hayom/ Hayom Hayom Hayom. Why do we repeat that word Hayom, today today today?

Because our Jewish tradition is saying:

Think about the past, learn from it, draw from it.
Think about the future. Plan, protect yourself, realistically think about the possibilities of what may happen.

Think about the past and think about the future but right now on these High Holidays, please stop and focus on the blessings of now, that you’re alive and you have good things in your life.

A wise woman who is 87 says that she doesn’t think about the past because it makes her sad and she doesn’t think about the future because it looks bad; she just thinks about what she wants to do that day. And her happiness is found in living that day well. Hayom.

That’s what the people at the Towers did; they concentrated on a goal they had never reached before and they focused on that day.

The ability to embrace each day is a great gift. Each morning when I wake up, before I put on my make-up, I say a little prayer for me. It’s one word: Hayom. Each morning when I wake up, even before I put on my tallis and tefillin, I say a little prayer, that on this day I will help another person, that I will find the special meaning in this day and that I will do something that will make me happy.

I talked about Tom, the voice on my GPS. Actually, Judaism gives us a much more significant GPS; it’s a G-d Positioning System. G-d tells us where to go and how to get there. But even those of us who follow the commandments get confused and lose our will because of all the fog, because of what life throws at us. And when we can’t see the coast, our Judaism sends us satellite signals from Heaven and three of the signals are:

Happiness is based on knowing where you’re going.

Happiness is based on the ability to adapt.

Happiness is based on embracing where and when you are.

If I had been in the boat on that foggy day, I would have said to Florence Chadwick,

“This is your moment. You’re alive and healthy and you’re swimming the Catalina Channel. This is your life, right here. Embrace this day. Embrace the cold and embrace the fog. And keep swimming. Because the goal is not California; the goal is the swimming. The goal is to be in this moment and love your life. That’s what happiness really is.”

Happiness is the ability to look at your life and say,

“I love. I might not receive as much as I give, but I love.

I try. I might not get everything I want, but I make the most of my gifts.

I adapt. I can change but I don’t give up what I believe.”

So there’s this really lousy movie called Knight and Day that has a wonderful ending that I will now spoil for you because you shouldn’t bother seeing it anyway. This couple has often talked about doing wonderful things together “someday” and at the end of the movie the man wakes up and says, “What day is it?” And the woman says, “It’s someday.”

We’re always talking about someday; someday we’ll do this and someday we’ll be happy.

Listen to me: I have buried a lot of good friends.  And some of them were always putting things off to do in the future. I have no idea who shall live and who shall die. That chilling prayer is rock bottom honest: We don’t know what’s coming next. If an opportunity comes knocking, open the door. And if one doesn’t come, you go knocking. I’ve been doing things in my life I never ever expected to do. I have found myself digging up an ancient Egyptian city in the desert and walking with a Palestinian imam in a concentration camp in Poland and now I’m going to Cuba. And these things are happening because I’m not saying, “Maybe someday.”

Each day when I wake up (before I put on my make up), I’ll say a little prayer for you. My prayer is that today or one of these days will be someday, that you’ll look at your life and you’ll embrace the moment and you’ll say hayom, this is someday.

And on that day, I pray that you will hear a voice, and that the voice will say, loud and clear, “You Have Reached Your Destination.”