For the Joy of it

By Shira Sebban – posted in Online Opinion Monday, 24 June 2013

Whatever happened to learning for the sheer joy of it? To embark on a quest out of curiosity and to savour the journey, motivated by a deep love of learning?

As Christopher B Nelson, president of St John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, has said: “The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfilment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all … students” (

Yet, today, knowledge is becoming more “commodified”. You can get a degree in almost anything, from professional nannying and auctioneering to clowning, paranormal studies and UFOs, and every institution seems to be at pains to tell you how useful your studies will be in helping you advance along a rewarding career path.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Obviously, we all need to earn a living, and it certainly helps if you can do so in a meaningful and enjoyable way, especially after paying considerable sums of money preparing for the privilege. Indeed, job fulfilment is ostensibly more important to Gen Y (aka Millenniums or Millennials) than it has been to any previous generation. Nevertheless, learning for learning’s sake seems to have little to do with the whole process.

I recently attended a Year 10 subject selection night at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with my teenage son, where we discovered more than 300 degrees on offer – students can nominate up to nine they would like to study – each accompanied by a list of associated career opportunities.

Amongst the myriad of documentation we collected was a Parent Information Guide, which told us in bold yellow print: “It’s time for your child to leave high school behind and take their first steps towards a rewarding career”. Studying at UNSW, it maintained, could “give them the best launchpad into the rest of their lives”.

No mention of love of learning here. The closest we got was a paragraph in the parent guide, encouraging us to ask our children what subjects they “enjoy” as a way of helping them to discover “degrees that match their abilities”. Meanwhile, we were bombarded with statistics about how UNSW graduates “are in high demand from employers” and “are in the top 5% for median starting salaries”.

While career paths for the more practical degrees, such as actuarial studies or optometry, are quite evident, others are far more vague. Those interested in an Arts degree, for example, of which I myself am a proud holder, are told: “Students in the humanities and social sciences learn a wide range of skills that open up many career opportunities. No other course of study provides you with the same combination of broad intellectual growth, skills development in research and analysis, the ability to communicate effectively and the capacity to think critically about the global environment we live in.”

Certainly all most valuable skills to acquire. Although not pointing to specific jobs, the desire to appear useful and therefore attractive to potential Arts students is obvious. And with good reason. In 2012, only about 76 per cent of new bachelor degree graduates from Australian institutions had found full-time employment within four months of completing their tertiary studies ( In other words, one-in-four students had not, and guess who they were most likely to be?

Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard since I graduated more than 20 years ago: Arts, and for that matter, Science graduates are often compelled to search long and hard for meaningful entry into the Australian work place, with many employers favouring more obvious and practical skills, such as those offered by a medical, accounting or engineering degree. There is even a Know Your Worth chart measured by how many burgers a young graduate can buy with their starting salary! Newly fledged dentists are in first place with more than 21,000 burgers, leaving those humanities graduates fortunate enough to find employment languishing in their wake on a paltry 12,000.

I can still recall the days when as a newly married, 20-something graduate, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. Armed with a French Honours degree with a major in philosophy, I was keen to find work, only to be met by the blank stares of my prospective Queensland employers. How I wished I lived in the more open-minded United Kingdom, where philosophy graduates were sought after banking employees! As it was, unless I wanted to be a teacher or agreed to leave my husband and move to Canberra to take up a job in the public service, there seemed little hope for me.

Today, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, is a shadow of what it used to be and has merged with history. Indeed, many subjects, particularly from the liberal arts, are disappearing precisely because they are no longer attracting students in large numbers, at least not the all-important, full-fee-paying international ones, and so are no longer seen as financially viable. Gender Studies, for example, is gradually being eliminated from many Australian universities, as are various history courses, religion, linguistics and foreign languages, the number of which being taught has more than halved over the past decade.

As renowned philosopher Raymond Gaita has said so eloquently, “Some essential disciplines of the humanities and the sciences – philosophy and (even) physics, for example – have become mendicants for a respected place in institutions that should honour them, but honour instead the study of hospitality and gaming” (“To Civilise the City?” Meanjin, May 2012).

Since ancient times, the liberal arts – traditionally encompassing grammar, rhetoric and logic, mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music – were seen as the very bastion of learning for learning’s sake, providing a good grounding for life. The epitome of such a well-rounded education were “polymaths” or “Renaissance men or women” – those deeply knowledgeable, highly skilled and multi-talented, yet still modest, individuals, as personified by Leonardo da Vinci. As the accomplished Italian Leone Battista Alberti (1404-72) said, “a man can do all things if he will”. He was speaking with a certain authority, having been a priest, author, architect, artist, linguist, poet, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, inventor, horseman and archer!

While certainly not in the same league, my grandfather was a kind of Renaissance man. Although he never had a formal secular education, and much to my envy, never even sat an exam, he was blessed with an inquiring and incisive mind, an insatiable desire for knowledge and a photographic memory. A laundryman by trade, he worked hard to become established before devoting the rest of his life to reading, thinking, discussing, writing, appreciating music and art, and travelling.

The patriarch of our family, my grandfather would preside over gatherings, regaling the table with such passions as the problems of justice and of individual freedom within the rule of law. Alternatively, he might have been keen to discuss what he had read that particular day which, given his eclectic interests, could range from a biography of the Italian Renaissance “father of science” Galileo Galilei or the writings of the 20th century philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell to biblical commentaries on Abraham, Moses or Samuel, various newspaper articles, which he would mark for others to read – our house was piled high with them – or even an account of the Shakers, a utopian Christian sect, some of whose former American settlements he visited and whose virtual demise fascinated him. Even while on an otherwise disappointing holiday in Tahiti, he derived enjoyment from reading daily doses from a volume of Albert Einstein’s essays, which he had happened to pick up at Sydney airport!]

Careers were not as important to my grandfather as the sheer love of learning, although he certainly emphasised the need to work to secure financial independence and be responsible for oneself. Indeed, whenever his children or grandchildren would ask his advice on our future studies, he would steer us in the direction of a great body of thought such as science or philosophy and encourage us to be creative and aim for excellence in all our endeavours. He himself set an example by striving to learn university-level mathematics in his fifties.

When I was choosing my university subjects, I enrolled in a philosophy major as a matter of course. It was just what our family did. Without my grandfather’s influence, I may never have even been exposed to Socrates and Plato or wrestled with the ideas of 18th century Scottish moral philosopher David Hume. That is not to say that they were always well taught. But at least I had the opportunity to encounter them.

Today it is certainly harder, albeit impossible, to be a Renaissance man or woman. Bombarded with data from all directions, many of us are suffering from “information overload”. Socrates was ostensibly humble enough to admit more than 2000 years ago that he “knew nothing, except just the fact of his ignorance” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers 5: 32). How much more true is that today!

As knowledge increases, we tend to sub-specialise even more, with new experts springing up in a range of fields that were unknown just a few years ago, from windfarm or fuel cell engineers, app designers and social media managers to Zumba teachers and carbon credit traders. And yet Gen Y will be expected to retrain for up to five different careers in a lifetime.

One of the aims of the school my children attend is for them to develop the skills to become “life long learners”. I hope they come to appreciate the value of a good education, one that encourages them always to keep their mind open, reading widely, constantly being exposed to new ideas and experiences and discovering joy through learning. Obviously to do so successfully, they will need that most precious commodity, time. Hopefully, however, they won’t need to wait until retirement before getting to explore what they’ve always dreamed of doing. I’m encouraging them to discover and pursue their passions now and to keep on chasing them for the rest of their lives.


Addicted to Community

My take on community in
Shira Sebban | 25 June 2013
I can no longer live a meaningful life without my community. My teenage son calls it an addiction. But my love for my community does not stem from mere habit, nor am I guided by compulsive need or blind infatuation. On the contrary, it has taken years of soul searching and trial and error to find the appropriate community where my family has been able to take root, grow and contribute.
Since time immemorial, philosophers like Aristotle and more recently, Spinoza have argued we are social animals. Indeed, most of us would be familiar with the ancient saying, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?’
Yet, it was not until my own father’s death ten years ago that my longing for community became so urgent. I had once asked him whether he would wish to be buried in the same cemetery as his parents and extended family in Toronto, Canada. ‘We should be buried within the community where we live,’ was my father’s reply. By that time, he had been residing in Melbourne for more than 30 years.
When my father died, I did not know where to turn. Not having been raised in a particularly religious home, I felt unable to draw on faith for comfort.
This was not from want of trying — although we had belonged to various congregations in the past, my husband and I had not been able to find a spiritual home since moving to a new city some years earlier. As a result, we’d flitted from one congregation to the next, sampling a different one on each holiday but never feeling at home.
Nevertheless, I was touched when a religious leader, whom I had met in the course of my search, rang several times to see how I was faring. When upon the first anniversary of my father’s death, he offered me his premises for a memorial service, we finally made up our minds to join his congregation — after such generosity on his part, we believed it was the least we could do … even without faith.
That sense of welcome, warmth and support through both tough and good times remain major factors in why we renew our membership each year.
Indeed, as our sons have grown older, our family has come to attend services every week. This may be going against the trend — only 7.5 per cent of Australians attend religious services regularly — but we believe that in this day and age when many of us do not even know whether we believe in God, it is still possible to contribute altruistically to and derive meaning from community based on religious civilisation.
Our congregation of choice integrates tradition with modernity, promoting all forms of equal rights, giving us the freedom to question, and acknowledging our prerogative to consider different interpretations and viewpoints.
The school my children attend is another pillar of my community. Pluralistic and egalitarian too, it welcomes students of all backgrounds, who come together in mutual respect and are encouraged to work to make the world a better place. So committed have I become to this philosophy that I decided to volunteer for the school board when my oldest son was in first grade and have remained actively involved ever since.
My oldest son has commented that without faith, a prayer service is just ‘a group of strangers singing together’. Yet I have discovered a sense of inner peace, spiritual uplift and intellectual stimulation through regular attendance at religious services and communal celebrations.
Alain de Botton in his 2012 book Religion for Atheists wrote that the relevance of such religions as Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism ‘to the problems of community are arguably never greater than when they … remind us that there is also value to be had in standing in a hall with a hundred acquaintances and singing a hymn together … or in sitting at a table with neighbours and partaking of lamb stew and conversation, the kinds of rituals which, as much as the deliberations inside parliaments and law courts, are what help to hold our fractious and fragile societies together’.
De Botton — who was born Jewish but is now a committed atheist — argues for the removal of religion’s ‘supernatural structure’ before it can help solve ‘many of the problems of the modern soul’.
My soul does not need to be quarantined from the full gamut of my religion in order to thrive. Indeed, I am quite happy to keep on exploring the laws and customs of my heritage and culture, practicing rituals and contemplating ideas from within a religious framework. All I need is my community.

Living Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Have you seen the powerful documentary Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea? I was so moved by it that I wrote this article.
Please try to see this film if you can. You can actually download it or watch it online.

I cannot forget Chaman’s eyes. Filled with tears, they bore into my soul as he makes his plea:

“People who are really refugees are people who have terrible troubles. Please do something for them. They are people like me. If my life weren’t in danger, if my family had not been killed, I would never take the risk to come here… I never wanted this to happen. I never wanted to be a refugee. But it’s just because I have no one left.”

It is too late to help Chaman himself. This young and handsome Afghan disappeared while en route to Australia by boat in October 2009. The boat was never found.

Nor was that fateful trip the first time he had tried to reach Australia. Previously, he had spent more than three weeks to get as far as Ashmore Reef, only for that boat to be turned back and forced to return to Indonesia. Hamid Karzai had recently become President of Afghanistan, and believing life would now be more peaceful, Chaman had agreed to return home, only for the Taliban to take away his family’s land, destroy their wealth and kill his parents and brothers.

Some would argue that he should never have got on any boat in the first place and that if asylum seekers persist in endangering their lives in that way, then it is our Government’s role to deter, if not prevent them from doing so by whatever means it can. But Chaman would say that he had no choice.

His tragic story is one of many recounted by asylum seekers themselves in Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (, an award-winning, powerful and moving documentary conceived by Melbourne barrister and refugee advocate Jessie Taylor. In mid-2009, together with interpreter Ali Reza Sadiqi, she interviewed about 250 asylum seekers, including around 120 children and unaccompanied minors, often living in squalid conditions in jails, detention centres and hostels across Indonesia, their words and images captured by a camera on occasion illegally smuggled into prison under Taylor’s headscarf.

Currently touring Australia on a road trip funded by donations, the documentary, which was produced by Taylor and filmmakers David Schmidt and Chris Kamen, will be officially screened for politicians in Parliament House in Canberra on March 18. “Come watch the film that Tony and Julia don’t want you to see,” the publicity urges. As Taylor explains, “the more people talk about the human beings behind this issue, the less likely it is that politicians can ignore them”.

Accompanied by my children, I attended a local screening, which took place in their school hall in Sydney. By the end of the film, some of the young high school students were in tears, overcome by the images of individuals, groups of friends, or families with children, some holding asylum seeker certificates and gazing unflinchingly at the camera. We have come to know many of them during the documentary as they told their stories. Now we learn their fate as each image is stamped “drowned at sea”, “missing”, “in detention” or “living in Australia”. Entire families lost, saved, or tragically torn apart.

Throughout the film, Taylor stresses that the people she interviewed had patiently tried to wait their turn, or as she puts it, “to stand in the queue”. As she says, “they saw Indonesia as the doorstep to Australia, not so they could kick down the door, but so they could knock and wait to be let in”. In other words, they had sought registration, interview and processing by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in an effort to attain refugee status and hopefully be recommended for resettlement in Australia.

The problem according to Taylor is that by 2009, the process was simply not working: “People were being resettled in Australia at a rate of between 35 and 50 people a year. The number of asylum seekers waiting for resettlement was 2500 and rising. A quick juggle of the numbers revealed that people could be waiting between 40 and 60 years for resettlement in Australia. They could be waiting a lifetime.”

Obviously, some four years later, the numbers are even higher, with more than 6700 asylum seekers and over 1800 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Jakarta as of the end of January 2013 ( Without the necessary legislation and procedures in place to protect refugees, South East Asian countries like Indonesia are dependent on the UNHCR and non-government bodies such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to provide assistance, partly funded by the Australian Government. Yet, as Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea clearly shows, the hope of many applicants is often extinguished by the sheer chaos and squalor of the conditions within which they face a seemingly interminable wait.

In the search for a better life, some, like Chaman, are desperate enough to risk the ultimate gamble, in their need to flee war, persecution or terror. A middle-aged man tells the interviewer, as his wife sobs in the background: “I would choose to die in pursuit of freedom rather than return to die at the hands of my oppressors.”

Others are motivated by a craving to belong. As one young man in the film explains: “I am 24 years old. I’ve never had a country. I just want to have a country. If I find a country, I will give my soul for that country.”

I urge you to see this film, listen to the voices and their stories, and make up your own mind. It certainly taught my own children a hard lesson: Life is a lottery, especially for a refugee on the run, who truly lives “between the devil and the deep blue sea”.

Caregiving and Judaism’s Expectations of How We Treat Our Parents in Old Age

Thursday, 31 January 2013
Published in Emanuel Synagogue’s Tell Magazine (February-April 2013).
Talking Point

by Shira Sebban

I am my mother’s advocate. Together with my sister, I manage her household, supervise her caregivers, pay her bills, and run her errands. Most importantly, we champion her rights, providing her with a voice at a time when, tragically, she can no longer stand up for herself due to the decade-long ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.
My mother used to be my role model and my best friend. Passionate, strong, courageous and intelligent, she was a brilliant scholar and a loving parent and grandparent, the person I could turn to for advice and companionship at any time.
Now the tables have been completely turned. The child who started out entirely dependent on her mother has matured to become the one on whom her mother depends. Since my mother has been afflicted by illness, I constantly feel her absence like a gaping hole in my life. She may still look like my mother and remain physically near, but mentally and spiritually, she is no longer there for me.
When someone has Alzheimer’s, there is plenty of time to say goodbye. Deterioration occurs slowly, with changes almost imperceptible at first and then becoming only gradually more noticeable. Alzheimer’s is a cruel illness, as my late maternal grandfather noted, telling my mother when, sadly, he was in the throes of the disease himself, “I am losing my I,” by which he meant that he was losing what made him whom he was as a person.
Moreover, gradually much of the world forgets its sufferers. Many friends stop writing or visiting; it is almost as if people are too embarrassed and don’t know how to deal with someone who can no longer respond except with a smile, a look or a touch.
Yet, already in the third century, Talmudic Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had pointed out that just as the fragments of the first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments shattered by Moses were placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the new tablets, so too should we “be careful” to respect “an old man who has forgotten his knowledge through no fault of his own” (Babylonian Talmud: Berakoth 8b).
Even earlier, the second century BCE Jerusalemite scholar Ben Sira wrote in his Book of Wisdom: “My child, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives. If his understanding fails, be considerate. And do not humiliate him when you are in your prime” (3:12-13).
We are taught that we are meant to “honor” and “respect” our parents in the same way as we revere God as partners in the creation of life. Yet, the first century sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, acknowledged that this Fifth Commandment was the hardest of all to obey (Tanhuma Ekev 2). As Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dr Albert Micah Lewis says, this Commandment “teaches that even though this kind of caregiving may not feel natural or even fair, it must be provided”(Person H.E. and Address R.F. (eds) 2003, That You May Live Long: Caring For Our Aging Parents, Caring For Ourselves, URJ Press, New York, p10).
Judaism values behaviour over thoughts and feelings. The Talmud lists the actions we need to perform in order to fulfil the mitzvah (good deed) of respecting our parents. “What is honor? Giving food, drink, dressing, covering, leading out and bringing in, and washing face, hands and feet” (Tosefta Kiddushin 1:11). In other words, children are required to ensure that their parents’ basic needs are provided.
While most Jewish sources insist upon children personally caring for their parents themselves – and with the right attitude – the medieval scholar and physician, Moses Maimonides, made an exception for children with parents whose minds were severely affected: “If the condition of the parent has grown worse and the son is no longer able to endure the strain, he may leave his father or mother, go elsewhere, and delegate to others to give the parents the proper care” (Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Mamrim 6:10). Chosen caregivers, however, must be able to cheer the patient up (Regimen sanitatis: The Preservation of Youth: Essays on Health, chapter 2).
Long ago my sister and I promised our mother that we would never put her in a nursing home. And we have honoured that promise, convincing her early on to move to the same city where we live and striving to ensure that she continues to reside with dignity in her own home. As card-carrying members of the “sandwich generation,” we have chosen to juggle her needs along with those of our own young families.
While that may not be the right decision for everyone, it has certainly proven to be the correct option for us, and we are fortunate to have had the freedom to be able to make that choice. Our mother can no longer thank us, but I know that she is grateful. Before she lost the ability to speak, she was expressing her gratitude to everybody who helped her, and I am sure she would still be doing so today if she could.
The debate over whether children should provide for their elderly parents from their own income or whether parents need to fund their own care also dates back to ancient times. Scholars were seemingly divided, with rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud advocating that even poor children must raise the funds to support their impoverished parents (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin, 1:7).
As Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: “’Honour your father and mother,’ even if you have to go begging in doorways” (Pesikta Rabbati 23). Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, on the other hand, maintained that the parents should provide the money, while the children should give their time (Babylonian Talmud, Mas. Kiddushin 31b-32a).
Maimonides argued that only when parents had no money were their financially independent children obligated to support them according to their means, and could even be coerced into doing so by a Bet Din (rabbinic court of law) (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 6:3).
If the children have money but refuse to spend it on their parents, Jewish law allows them to use funds they would otherwise have given to charity, but immediately “curses” them for “humiliating” their parents: (Babylonian Talmud, Mas. Kiddushin 32a). Others go further and compare such a refusal to murder, maintaining that such a comparison is warranted by the fact that the two Commandments, to honor one’s parents and not to murder, follow each other (10th century Midrash, Tanna Devei Eliyahu).
Broadcaster Sandra Tsing Loh said last year on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation that the “daughter track is far more open-ended [than the mommy track] and has no rewards at the end except for death” (29 February, 2012).
No rewards?
Even though I would give anything to have my mother back again as she once was, I know that caring for her has taught me to be kinder and more patient, especially in the last few years, when I no longer know if she even recognises me. Sometimes being patient is a struggle in the flurry of everyday life, as I force myself to slow down to my mother’s pace, watching as she chews each mouthful of the meal that has been prepared for her.
As Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim in Madison, Wisconsin, has said, “just by her being, she teaches us the highest form of compassion” (8 October 2008, “Aging and Caring for Elderly Parents”, Renowned Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, has wisely advised: “You may just want to sit and hold the hand of the parent with Alzheimer’s. Communicate on the inside. Something is going to happen in the silence. There is a being behind the brain” (September 2012, “From Age-ing to Sage- ing,” Front Range Living, http://www.frontrangeliving. com/family-health/rabbi-zalman.htm).
Indeed, even though she has forgotten her language, my mother often tries to communicate when she sees me. The other day, one of her longtime caregivers told her she was leaving to return to her homeland. “She looked at me,” the caregiver said, “and I knew she understood.”
Caring for my mother has also given me an opportunity to set a good example for my children, teaching them to be decent human beings. As my 11-year-old son said, “We owe it to our parents to look after them in their old age. They care for us when we are young and then it becomes our turn to care for them.”
If everything else fails, fear can be a strong motivator, as is understood by the Torah: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:32). Respecting our parents is the only Commandment accompanied by a reward, which can also be read as a veiled threat: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may long endure, and that you may fare well, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you” (Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5:16; see also Shemot (Exodus) 20:12).
Not only should our fear of God influence how we treat the elderly, but we should also behave towards others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Indeed, on Yom Kippur morning, we pray “Do not cast us off in our old age; when our strength fails, do not forsake us!” (from Psalm 71:9). According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, “if we show honor and respect to our parents when they are old, we will be fashioning a world in which we will not have to be afraid of growing old, a world in which length of days will indeed be a reward and not a burden” (Foreword, xvii to Berrin S. (ed) 1997, A Heart of Wisdom: Making the Jewish Journey from Midlife Through the Elder Years, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing).
Meanwhile, I feel rewarded that I am providing my mother with a good quality of life from which she still derives some enjoyment.
Yes, despite everything, she still gets some joy out of life. Contrary to popular misconception, advanced Alzheimer’s sufferers are not vegetables. Although the illness may cocoon them from feeling the full brunt of life’s emotions, they still experience pain and pleasure, peace and agitation. My mother continues to appreciate good food, especially dark chocolate, music, flowers, massage and the warmth of the sun. She may be confined to a wheelchair, but she is not confined to her apartment, attending an adult day care program twice a week, going on outings and visiting with her family.
She is still a human being – even if she has lost her “I”.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor, a congregant of Emanuel Synagogue, and vice-president on the board of Emanuel School.

The Life in our Years

By Shira Sebban – posted Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A friend told me recently that his fast-approaching 50th birthday would probably be his worst and that he was just going to put his head down, get through the day and move on with his life.

I can certainly sympathise – few of us like to be reminded of the passing years as we get older, especially in our youth-obsessed society where the aim seems to be at the very least to make time stand still or even go backwards. Today, we are constantly told that “50 is the new 40”, or in the case of celebrity Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta, “the new 25”: “I feel incredible,” the mother of three, including a two-year-old, gushed to People magazine, “You are as old as you feel and I feel like I’m 25!”

Mixed messages abound. Either we’re being reassured there is nothing to fear about turning 50 – so long as we follow the myriad of beauty, fashion, diet and exercise tips on offer – or we’re being bombarded with advice on how to cope in our 50s and 60s, decades that have been likened to the Bermuda Triangle: if you manage to pass through relatively unscathed, you’ll be fine.
To quote Huffington Post blogger Sharon Greenthal: “Don’t dwell on the things that didn’t happen, the opportunities missed, the loved ones gone, the friends at a distance. Forget the money that you’ve lost or the journey not taken.” Journalist Linda Lowen sounds an even gloomier warning: “After turning 50, nearly all of us are closer to death than birth”. Thanks Sharon and Linda, now I feel really depressed!

On the other hand, by the time we reach 50, we’re meant to be wise and experienced, with plenty of knowledge to impart to others. Indeed, ancient wisdom teaches that 40 is when we attain understanding, 50 when we can offer advice, and 60 when we finally reach seniority (Ethics of Our Fathers 5:24).

While I certainly haven’t waited to turn 50 to proffer advice to anyone who will listen, I don’t necessarily feel wiser than the next person. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, “Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes”. And I, like everyone else, have made plenty of them. Sure, life has taught me lessons I can share, but I’m often wrong and am not afraid to say so, learn from it and move on.

Some people drift through life, carried along by circumstance or, for those seemingly fortunate few, by sheer whim. Apparently content and relaxed, they don’t look as if they are stirred by guilt and give the impression, at least, of effortlessly remaining in the moment, confident about, and at peace with, who they are and what they have or haven’t achieved so far… Or perhaps they just haven’t given much thought to the big picture.

I’ve often wished that I could be more like them – surely life would be so much easier!

“Blessed” with a driven personality, I need to have a purpose almost all of the time in order to feel good about myself. I still strive to learn something new every day and am constantly motivated to succeed at whatever task I’ve set myself, analysing and questioning the value of my work.
After all, we only have relatively few short years on this earth, so am I doing the very best I can? What else should I be doing before it’s too late?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average retirement age for women is around 50! But as a member of the “sandwich generation”, who is still juggling the care of young children and elderly parents with work and volunteering opportunities, I’m no where near ready to retire, and at least at this stage, don’t think I ever will be … although I certainly would love more time to travel.

I suppose much of the blame for this personality trait and attitude to life can be sheeted home to my parents and grandfather, who have had such a huge influence on me. They encouraged me to strive for excellence – as distinct from perfection – and had high expectations of both themselves and those they loved, always remaining true to their principles. They taught me to be humble and ethical, encouraging me to think for myself and stand up for what I believe in.

In short, they raised me to trust I could do anything I set my mind to and urged me to find an interest in life that would sustain me. As my mother once wrote to me: “Life has a lot to offer. One must, however, know how to cherish it and to make the most of the opportunities offered.”

My grandfather put it this way: “The world becomes a universe full of puzzles and its secrets a life full of exciting curiosities, joy and deep feeling for its hidden mysteries.”

Surely then what truly matters is not how many years have passed, which after all is beyond our control, but what we do with each day, or as my friend put it, “getting on with life”.

So instead of feeling like I’m staring down the barrel of turning 50 next birthday, I’m going to try and emulate the attitude Abraham Lincoln displayed when he commented so eloquently: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” Now there’s a man who probably wouldn’t have turned a hair at the prospect of growing older if he’d been given the chance!

We may not always succeed, but like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of those giants who lived before us, we can strive to understand and build on the past, continuing to contribute creatively, derive meaning and purpose and hopefully help to make the world a better place for future generations.

That, after all, is our legacy.

About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.




Abandoning the Search for Balance

By Shira Sebban – posted Friday, 4 January 2013

I was raised to believe I could do anything. The product of a largely intellectual household, I graduated from a girls’ school on the cusp of the 80s, armed with the view that the world could be my oyster. Never even having heard of the then relatively new concept of “work-life balance”, all I knew was that everything was open to me. Further education, career, marriage, children – I was certain I could do whatever I set my mind to.

My mother was my role model. Passionate, strong, courageous and intelligent, she had graduated with her first degree in the 1950s – a time when university was still very much a man’s world – escaping the edict her lecturer had reserved for most of his female students to “go and find a husband”. She had travelled the world before settling down in her early thirties – much to the relief of her father, who had urged her to “marry anyone, even a broomstick, but get married already!”

She had then managed to complete a doctorate, have two children, and embark on a career as an economist, lecturing to vast numbers of students and travelling to conferences overseas. A doting parent, her job was flexible enough to allow her to attend sports carnivals and mostly to be home when my sister and I returned from school. She would then devote her attention to us, only turning to her own work after we had gone to bed.
My mother, however, had a secret weapon in the shape of my father, who had chosen to take early retirement before she was offered her first full-time job in academia. While she was at work, he would be there, maintaining the household and driving us to our after-school activities. On the evenings when she lectured late at university, he would supervise our homework, prepare our dinner and play games with us.

As a child of the 1970s, the household in which I grew up was unusual. My teachers loved to read my weekly journal entries, where I would describe going to the office to visit Mummy after a trip to the supermarket with Daddy. At the same time, my father always maintained his own eclectic interests.

As he taught me, “The balance between a couple is not always 50-50. The person who is more available should provide the most support.”

Balance … the key, we are told, to a successful life. And not just in a relationship, but within ourselves too. How many times have you heard that “we need to get the balance right” as our everyday pace reaches frenetic levels, involving a seemingly endless juggle of work and family commitments? And what about the single parents among us, juggling even more frantically just to stay afloat?

Many of us are not just responsible for children either. Having become a card-carrying member of the “sandwich generation”, I am sadly familiar with the responsibilities that come with looking after young children at the same time as ailing parents, literally running two households where I am accountable for everything.

My father was a realist. We cannot do it all alone. Nor is there any perfection in this world. The truth is you’re going to have to compromise that long cherished “ideal” you may have been harbouring.
Obviously, for many women, a job is an economic necessity irrespective of their family commitments. They haven’t got the luxury to search for that “dream job”, which would provide fulfilment, pay a decent salary and offer the flexible hours so useful when raising a family and caring for the elderly. Something has to give.

I’ve come to realise that the more I yearn for that perfect work-life balance, the more it eludes me, often remaining tantalisingly just out of reach. In my childfree youth, there were times when, despite my best efforts, study and work literally took over my life, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Now as I strive to live up to my own expectations of being a “good parent” and “dutiful daughter”, looking after the needs of others can on occasion dominate my time, leaving minimal hours for my own pursuits. Finding the time to go to the gym, read a book or even write an article is one thing. Berating myself to “find a job” to fill the few hours I have available is quite another.

And so I have decided to call off my quest for perfect balance. It’s quite an empowering decision really. No more agonising over whether I’m making the best use of my “free” time. No more fruitless searches for accommodating jobs that simply don’t exist. No more bewailing my situation over lunches with sympathetic girlfriends. It’s simple once you get the hang of it and manage to overcome the last vestiges of guilt: accept what life throws at you, make the best of it, and move on.

The ancients certainly knew what they were talking about: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3). I may still be able to do anything I set up mind to … just not all at once.

About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.

Please Don’t Forget

I do for her what I can within my power, striving to ease the anxiety, confusion, loneliness and rejection. It is the least I can do – she is my mother and I, for one, will never forget.

By Shira Sebban
Alzheimer’s Reading Room
I had just given birth to my third child. As always, my ever-supportive parents had flown up from their hometown to welcome the arrival of their latest grandchild.

But this time we could sense that something was wrong. My father wasn’t feeling well and my mother, who over the past few months, had cancelled several appointments with the geriatrician, did not seem herself.

Recently returned from a cruise, my father reported: “People didn’t want to sit with us because your mother kept repeating the same stories.”

Within a few months, the family had received two diagnoses: my father was suffering from cancer, while my mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

My sister and I, together with my infant son, flew down for the requisite family conference, where our father joined us, interrupting his radiotherapy treatment for the occasion.

After his death only a few months later, I did not want to leave my mother alone in her downtown apartment and convinced her to fly home with me. She moved in with my young family for a few months, before she expressed the desire to have her own apartment.

A fiercely independent, retired academic, she enjoyed her own company and while she took pleasure in her grandchildren, she also craved the privacy and space she had always needed to read, think and write.

During our weekly Friday evening family gatherings, our children would sing a song in which each family member had to state what they love. My mother’s answer never changed: peace and quiet.

In finding our mother a new home, we took great pains to ensure that it would have as an attractive an outlook as possible and be furnished with all her cherished possessions. Sadly, we knew that her apartment could eventually become a golden cage, where she would by necessity end up spending much of her time.

A decade later, almost completely incapacitated and confined to a wheelchair, she does not take notice of the beautiful views and mementos anymore.

I do not even know if she recognizes me.

Nevertheless, we take comfort from the fact that she still leads a daily existence in which her care and well being are paramount. And while the variety of outings has indeed diminished, she still travels to parks and gardens, attends an adult day care program twice a week and visits with her family.

Asking my mother to move cities was fraught with emotion and difficulties. After all, I was asking her to leave her hometown and her friends. Still, I felt driven to act quickly and decisively, only too aware of the narrow window of opportunity available before her illness would grow worse, and wanting to take advantage of the time during which she would still be able to cope with the stresses and upheaval involved in such a major move.

When she first moved in with me, I naively thought I could help her meet new friends.

A spirited, courageous and knowledgeable woman, my mother had always been great company, able to converse with young and old alike. I made several arrangements for her with my friends’ parents, only to discover that after the initial introduction, they did not wish to pursue the connection.

They did not share a common history, did not have the patience to listen to her repeat stories from her past, and were not prepared to cope with her confusion.

Eventually, we turned to a home care agency for extra companionship and subsequently, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, for the professional care needed to enable her to continue residing with dignity in her own home.

While we were fortunate to have had that option and my mother was generally accepting of these kind strangers, I still remember being wracked with guilt, when she would suddenly change her mind and beg to go “home” with me rather than stay in her until-then cherished apartment.

Meanwhile, her true friends were living far away. Initially, they rang regularly, wrote cards and letters, and made arrangements to visit when they happened to be in town. But as the years passed and my mother could no longer answer the phone or reply to a letter, her world narrowed even more.

Friends stopped writing or visiting, and I found myself reminding her former colleagues to send the occasional card. After all, it is hard to keep up a relationship when it seems so one-sided.

Eventually, I discovered that I had, by default, become my mother’s spokesperson.

Her friends would ring or email me for news of her, while charities that she had long sponsored would ask for donations, which I would dutifully provide, striving to act as I thought she would have done.

For many years, I continued her subscriptions to various publications until I finally came to the sad realization that unless I or another family member was going to read them, there was just no point in doing so anymore.

After years of struggle, I have come to accept that my mother’s place in the world is no longer what it once was. In the flurry of everyday life, I cannot expect others to have the same depth of emotion and concern about her as I do, nor can I control their behaviour.

Gradually much of the world forgets the Alzheimer’s sufferer. It is almost as if people are too embarrassed and don’t know how to relate to someone who may only be able to respond, if you are lucky, with an occasional smile, look or touch.

Yet, it is also human nature to want to be respected and remembered, along with those we love and admire. As the 19th century American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote in A Psalm of Life:

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time”

I do not want my mother’s footprints, which she worked so hard to create, to be erased, and so I constantly recall the person she once was – my role model and best friend, a brilliant scholar, loving parent and grandparent.

I also ensure that my children know our family stories, for sadly, they are too young to remember much about their grandfather and only know their grandmother as she is now.

At the same time, we are all familiar with the Golden Rule to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.

My mother may no longer recognize me, but she still appreciates good food, music, massage and the warmth of the sun. And so I strive to reach her by cooking for her; buying her favourite dark chocolates; giving her an ipod filled with familiar tunes to soothe her when she is agitated or cannot sleep; arranging physiotherapy massages and outings to parks and gardens.

I do for her what I can within my power, striving to ease the anxiety, confusion, loneliness and rejection. It is the least I can do – she is my mother and I, for one, will never forget.

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor. A former journalist, Shira previously taught French and worked in publishing. She is also vice-president of the Board of her children’s school.