December 14, 2018

Joel’s Rules for Living

I consider myself a Joel-ite, as do a few of my friends. Or is it Joel-ian? If the Joel cult grows, I suppose we’ll figure it out.

Or maybe not.

We follow the teachings of Joel, an 82-year-old (occasional) tennis player who no longer runs after the ball but waits for it to come to him, preferably not too high or too low. And his teachings are much like his tennis-playing: When you’re in your 80s, you can’t go chasing after enlightenment, it has to come to you, and at just the right level where you can hit it with your racket’s sweet spot.

Though Joel’s basic instructions are most relevant to us elderly folks, anyone can follow his rules for a stress-free life.

Rule No. 1: Abandon Righteous Indignation
As we all know, nowadays there are endless opportunities for righteous indignation. Reactions to Donald Trump, of course, lead the list. Every day brings fresh reasons to shake one’s head in judgmental high dudgeon. How could he say that? How could he tweet that? Who does he think he is? Who does he think we are — morons with no memory?

However, if you’re on the other side of the political spectrum, there are also rich prospects for righteous indignation. How can people demean the flag? How dare deep-state lackeys take away my God-given rights? Why can’t immigrants stay in their own s—hole countries?

We Joel-ites believe that no matter what your politics may be, abandoning righteous indignation relieves you of enormous burdens: You no longer have to be upset by those who thumb their noses at your deepest beliefs, like decency and democracy. Mr. Trump’s latest insult? Shrug it off! Athletes taking a knee during the national anthem? Yawn. The latest sexual harassment scandal? Yes, yes, empathy for the victims, of course … and then move on. Free of righteous indignation, you can then binge-watch TV without a pang of remorse.

Rule No. 2: Abandon Any Thought of Immortality
Whatever we may have done — or not done — in our lives, a part of us believes that something we did will outlive us. Scientists, creative people and politicians think this way much of the time, but the rest of us do, too, in our own way. We all harbor the hope that even though our name may be forgotten, some element of the work we do, some lesson we’ve taught our children, some slight improvement we’ve made to the general well-being will live on and make us, to some tiny degree, immortal.

We Joel-ites believe that this is nonsensical hubris. Cemeteries are filled with the remains of those who deluded themselves into thinking their life and work would last forever. The overwhelming majority of people leave behind only some personal memories among friends and family. Very few improve the world, and an equally small number make the world worse. Both achieve a kind of immortality. But more than likely, you’re in neither of those categories.
Joel, who made his living as a doctor, acknowledges that one exception is donating your body or organs to science so that your anonymous kidney or liver will achieve, if not immortality, at least a bit of temporary post-death usefulness.

Rule No. 3: Abandon Aspirations of Self-Improvement
This is difficult, given that we’re surrounded by ads telling us that we can radically improve our lives with the right medicine or the right financial adviser. Or the right yogurt. Maybe if you’re young enough, there’s a chance of improving your life; but once you’re past 70, forget it.

You’re as good as you’re going to get.

Sure, if it makes you feel good, go ahead, take up watercolors or yoga, learn French, join that book group, eat healthy or write poetry. But it’s better if you do it without the illusion of self-improvement. And it’s perfectly OK not to feel any guilt about this. In fact, that’s the point of these instructions.

So that’s the Joel-ite catechism: With no more righteous indignation, no thoughts of immortality and no hopes of self-improvement, you’re guaranteed a contented and guilt-free golden age.

Or maybe not.