My family recently surprised my father for his 70th birthday.
On his actual birthday, Thursday, we had a special dinner and presented him with a pair of sunglasses wrapped in a picture of him as a thirty-year-old wearing a similar pair of shades. This, he thought, was the extent of it.
Saturday night, my brother flew in from out of town – a visit my dad did not anticipate.
On Sunday, we brought him to a movie theater and showed him a montage of pictures and videos of his life. Now this, he thought, was the icing on the cake. Later that evening, my father thought he was accompanying my brother to the airport. Yet, we shocked him once again by taking him in the other direction to an acclaimed restaurant to culminate the birthday weekend.
The first question everybody asks the birthday “surprisee” is, “Were you actually surprised?”
My father was genuinely shocked. But when he paused for a moment to reflect, he realized in retrospect that there had been “weird” things going on around him for a while. For instance, when my parents were extremely busy with travel preparations, my father went to look for my mother and found her “organizing old pictures.” He found it puzzling that this was taking precedence over their preparations, but didn’t give it much thought. Another example is when my father was about to “accompany my brother to the airport,” my mother told him he should change his clothes. He did not know the reason behind the request and put on clothes that were more casual than his previous outfit. My mother insisted that he change again into something nicer. He was completely baffled as to why he was dressing up for a trip to LAX. And the list of little bemusing things goes on.
When he thought about all of these funny things in the context of the party, everything made sense.
As part of the morning blessings, we say the words “she’asa li kol tzarki,” meaning, “Thank you [Hashem] for all You provided for me.” I always wondered why we refer to G-d’s provisions in the past tense; after all, G-d gives to us continuously. However, we often do not see a reason to be grateful except in hindsight, when we have an “Aha!” moment and realize, yes, G-d did truly provide for us.
Apple Inc. co-founder, Steve Jobs, called experiencing gratitude after the fact “connecting the dots.” At his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, he spoke about how he took a college calligraphy class, which, at the moment, seemed to have no practical application in his life. However, ten years later, he used the skills he learned in that class to help design the typography of the first Mac computer, which was subsequently copied by Windows. As such, if he had not attended that class years prior, the typography on every personal computer may not be what it is today.
Jobs summed it all up by saying, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
This analogy can be illustrated through a child’s connect-the-dots activity book, which prompts the child to connect dots sequentially, with the numbers in ascending order, to create an image that only becomes apparent when all the dots are linked. Likewise, the beauty in our lives does not always manifest until time has passed and all the dots have connected. However, conversely, in life it is easier to connect the dots in reverse order. Practically, this means reflecting on a positive outcome that we have experienced and trying to connect the dots backwards – to realize how we arrived there.
And as Jobs mentioned, besides reflection, it also takes trust. Perhaps the trust that Jobs refers to is that of a higher power – our Father in heaven.
Janice Kaplan, in her bestselling book Gratitude Diaries, writes about losing her high-powered job at a famous magazine. While waiting at a coffee shop to interview for a new job, she complimented the person next to her on her rain boots. They introduced themselves to each other, and this impromptu meeting was instrumental in her next career move, becoming an author. The initial interviewer never showed up, and at the time she tried not let it bother her too much. Years later, though, she is more than thankful that he was a no-show. Her books made her more successful than she ever could have been at her magazine job.
In the moment, we can moan and groan about losing our job, and then wait impatiently for an absent interviewer. We can leave disgruntled and arrive home to vent to our loved ones about what a horrible day it was. Or, we can be open to what life has in store for us.
What we might be tempted to view as “the worst day ever” could be life-altering. Like my dad, we can appreciate life’s surprises and realize just how much everything makes sense in the end.