Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 17, 2001
Rabbi has insight into the good life
Living A Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success, by Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 2001. 158 pages. Hardcover.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
Being good and doing well are twin, often contradictory, concerns for many people. We spend much of our lives trying to be both good and successful, says author Harold Kushner who wrote Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Life teaches that it is hard to bridge the gap between following our conscience and achieving great things. In the end, Kushner believes it is possible to be a good person despite some of the things we've done. It is also possible to become somebody who matters.
Kushner uses the Jacob narratives (Genesis chapters 25-50) to demonstrate that an individual with serious flaws of character can become a person of integrity by coming to terms with him or herself. We are simultaneously people with good and bad in us. To be complete persons we need to integrate those positive and negative impulses. We can't ultimately do good unless we deal with the not-so-good in us.
The Jacob story can teach us much. As a young man, Jacob relied on his cleverness to help him succeed. But life eventually caught up with him. At a significant moment he had to wrestle with an angel whom the author believes was Jacob's own conscience. In that struggle he battled mightily but finally had to concede defeat.
Jacob won by losing. His reward was resolution and an inner serenity.
Using a formula that readers of his previous best-selling books found appealing, Kushner leads us thoughtfully through the meaning of victimization and vengeance, forgiveness, love and support as we are challenged to become the persons we truly want to be.
What victims of life's unfairness often need more than compensation is vindication - a public announcement that what happened to them was unfair. They want the burden of shame and powerlessness lifted from their shoulders and placed where it belongs.
Forgiveness is ultimately what we do for ourselves, not to the party who wronged us. Real love involves nourishing another's soul and being nourished in return. To be what we might become we need to be needed by other people.
To be supportive actors in other people's dramas is one of the most significant ways to conquer our fears of insignificance. Finding someone who needs our help and reaching out to that person can do wonders for our sense of purpose and worth. Mother Teresa once said that few of us will do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.
A person who has united the different parts of his or her character is no longer split between the struggle to be good and to do well.
Life is not easy, but in one way it can be simple. Figure out what is right and do it. There is no right way to do a wrong thing. We may start off trusting and naive but experience has a way of making us deceitful and manipulative. Then, like Jacob, we inevitably encounter our own personal angel who wrestles with us.
We come out of the struggle wounded, but ultimately that can make us whole. Our inner conflicts are ended. We have become persons of integrity.
Jacob got it right. Goodness and love are experiences that assure us that our lives have mattered in the world and we have not lived in vain. Jacob learned that others don't have to lose for us to win. The small choices we make each day can effect the difference and determine the kind of world in which we decide to live.
Tragedies are inevitable. For Kushner, a major blow was the loss of his son while still a teenager. Yet, he believes that such events can become foundation stones of something good and life-enhancing.
The key to my immortality, he says, is in the work I have done, the acts of kindness performed, the love I have given and received, the people who smile when remembering me. To leave the world a better place is to have succeeded.
Our ancestor Jacob never died. A good person, even in death, is still alive.
These are not euphemistic maxims about the good life. Here is wisdom, borne from a lifetime of spiritual engagement and hard-earned rabbinical experience.
(Rev. Wayne Holst is a writer who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)