Beliefnet
Truths You Can Use

unhappy mother's day

At my previous synagogue, I became friendly with an older woman. She told me all the time about her amazing son. My wife and I even had dinner with her, her son and his family to celebrated her 80th birthday.

A few weeks later I got a call at my office. The caller said she’d like to set up a meeting. I asked what it was regarding. She told me it was a personal matter. When we sat down a few days later, she told me she was my 80-year-old friend’s daughter.

I was shocked. “I-I-I had no idea,” I replied. “Yes,” she said, “We haven’t spoken in 15 years. She barely knows my children. I know you have gotten to know her. Mother’s Day is coming up. Can you help us heal?”

It was at that moment I realized how painful Mother’s Day can be. It is a time to pay tribute. And it is also a time to recognize. To recognize the pain of estrangement; the heartache of those who can’t become mothers; and the hurt of those who have lost their mothers.

Estrangement

Gannett estimates that 30 percent of women have been estranged at some point from their mom. This fact may sadden us. But should it surprise us?

No relationship is perfect. We say things that hurt another. We are not always present when we need to be. These mistakes are part of being human.

Yet, as  Alexander Pope once said, “to err is human; to forgive, divine.”

We resist the need to forgive. Sometimes we resist it most fiercely with those love. Mothers can be at the top of that list. We need to remember this reality when we celebrate Mother’s Day. We need to remember the pain of the estranged.

Infertility

Abraham’s wife Sarah is the mother of the Jewish people. Yet, she had a hard time becoming a mother. Her pain was so great that she asked Abraham to have a child with her maid Hagar.

Two of the other Jewish matriarchs, Rebecca and Rachel, also experienced great pain in their attempt to become mothers. They pleaded with God. Their cries are some of the most poignant and heart-felt in the Bible.

Some people may cry hard on Mother’s Day. Sometimes we think giving birth is the most natural thing in the world. Thousands of years of history prove otherwise.

Mourning

In my congregation, I always make it a point around Mother’s Day to call people who have lost their mother over the past year. The joy of the day can also remind us of the pain of our loss.

The pain is felt even if the death was expected, and even if the death happened at a ripe old age. Life is not measured by years. It is measured by the depth of our relationships. We may feel most acutely the depth of what we have lost on a day when others celebrate what they still have.

Mindful Celebration

Israeli poet Naomi Shemer said life demands we accept the bitter with the sweet. Mother’s Day is one of the sweetest days of year, and we should celebrate it. In our celebration, however, let us not ignore the pain our friend and neighbor may be feeling.

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“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” —Muhammad Ali

Recall a great scene from the film LA Story: The weatherman, played by Steve Martin, is delivering his typical forecast. As he throws little yellow magnets on the map, he yells “Sun! Sun! Sun! Sun!” He seems exasperated that warm and sunny days are all he gets to predict.

make each day count

Of course, the next days see tremendous downpours of rain. When we have too much of a good thing, we often begin to take it for granted.

Counting is Growing

The Jewish calendar offers an antidote for this tendency. We are in the midst of a fifty day period known as the “counting of the omer.” For fifty days we say a blessing and mention what day in the cycle of counting it is.

During this period, I also say a verse from the Psalms: “Teach us, O God, to number our days so that we may a heart of wisdom.” To me that verse defines the purpose of this period of counting. We count in order to grow. We count in order to make each day count.

Is Muhammad Ali Right? 

Thus, Muhammad Ali was 100% half-right. Counting the days and making them count are not antithetical. We count the days to remind ourselves that each day counts. 

Each day we can learn a new skill, make a new friend, make a small difference in another person’s life. Each day is an opportunity to explore and enjoy the mysteries of creation. Each day we can move a little closer to the person we seek to become.

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prison meaning of life prison jail

A nineteenth century rabbi used to spend time each afternoon looking out of his window. Every day he saw a member of his synagogue rushing down the street. One day he stopped him and said, “Why are you always in a hurry?”

The man replied, “I’m running to make a living.” The rabbi answered, “How do you know your living is not running after you. Perhaps all you need to do is pause, and let it catch up.”

The rabbi’s insight applies not only to making a living. It teaches us how to make a life. It reminds us that we can become our own worst enemies.

Perfection is the enemy of the good

How often do we create a flawless vision of our future self: the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect world? Rarely do these visions ever match reality. They often have the opposite of their intended effect.

Rather than guide us, they handicap us. Rather than pull us toward the future, they trap us in the past. If we think only of tomorrow, we never discover hidden treasure within us today. When we avoid the challenges of today, we never become future person we are meant to be.

“Today,” the psalmist wrote 2000 years ago, “is the day God has chosen. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” If we do so, we discover possibilities within ourselves that we never saw before.

What My Dad Learned in Prison

My dad taught me this lesson recently. A few years ago, the medical school where he works entered into an agreement with the Wisconsin state prison system. Coincidentally, a clinic he had been running was sold to a different hospital. The dean of the school asked if my dad could serve as a therapist at a medium security prison three times a week.

My dad was in his early sixties imagining a nice, easy retirement with my mom. I think working in a prison was the last thing he imagined doing. On his visit to decide whether he was going to do this or not, the prison’s warden told him not to shake hands with the prisoners or wear a tie, lest someone try to strangle him.

Yet, he accepted.

Through the prison work, he has found a whole new meaning in his career. He has faced situations and behaviors that opened new channels of empathy. He has struggled with the reality of evil and apathy. He has encountered people that have changed his perspective after 35 years of practice.

Quite often we find new meaning and strength where we least expect it. Quite often it lies waiting for us to discover. We simply have to look within ourselves.

Where the treasure is buried

One of my favorite stories in all of Jewish literature conveys this truth in dramatic fashion. It concerns a man named Reb Isaac of Krakow. Isaac had a dream one evening. He dreamed that a certain treasure was buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Eager to provide more for his family, he pooled his resources and traveled to Prague.

When he got there, he found that the bridge to be guarded day and night. He waited patiently. After a while, the guard began to have sympathy on him. He went up and asked Reb Isaac what he was doing here. Reb Isaac told him about the dream of buried treasure that brought him to this bridge.

The guard laughed. “You have faith in dreams, he said. That’s nonsense. If I believed in dreams, I would have gone to Cracow, because long ago I dreamt that under the stove of a man named Reb Isaac of Cracow, there lay buried a great treasure.”

Reb Isaac understood the message. He returned to Cracow that same day. When he got back to his home, he discovered the treasure that lay inside it.

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discover your purpose

The great 19th century psychologist William James had trouble getting out of bed one morning. Describing his struggle he wrote,

The warm couch feels too delicious, the cold outside too cruel, and resolution faints away and postpones itself again and again just as it seemed on the verge of bursting the resistance and passing over into the decisive act. Now how do we ever get up under such circumstances?

What eventually got him out of bed? “We suddenly find,” he writes, “that we have to get up.”

What sparks that feeling? It is not just the need to make a living and get to work. It is not even the sound of screaming kids or an alarm clock. These can assist in waking up, but they do not give us the critical push.

Are We Here To Be Depressed? 

The critical push comes from a sense of purpose. It comes from a knowledge that what we do matters. That we have minds, hearts, hands to do something that affects the world. Lacking that sense of purpose leads to what Emile Durkheim called “anomie,” the feeling that nothing we do matters at all. Life becomes an ongoing depression.

The best way to find our purpose is to figure out what we believe in.  Every part of us was created in a certain way for a certain reason. We are here for a purpose. We need to align ourselves with that purpose.

Whatever We Have Is Enough

Indeed, one of the morning prayers in Judaism thanks God for every part of our body. Every part of ourselves works to serve the purpose for which we live.

We say this prayer whatever condition we are in. It is not about the exact health of our bodies. It is about the way we look at ourselves. What can we do with what God has given us?

Beethoven, for example, couldn’t hear at the end of his life. Still, he gave us the ninth symphony, one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever conceived.

If We Are Alive, We Have a Purpose

As long as we are alive, we have a purpose. It is easy to become distracted from it. It is not always self-evident.

Writer and blogger Michael Hyatt tells the story of a conversation he had with a beloved pastor. The pastor had recently celebrated his 80th birthday. In the midst of their conversation, the pastor turned to Hyatt and asked him with a note of uncertainty in his voice, “Michael, do you think I have anything left to contribute? Are my best days over?”

Even if we are not 80, we can feel this way. Bruce Springstein sings of it in his song “Glory Days,” which tells of a man’s pining for the high school days when he was a great athlete. It was a time before divorce, difficulty and despair. The song echoes a feeling that our best days are behind us.

Miles To Go

When we have faith that we are here for a purpose, however, we know our best days lie ahead. If we are alive, we have not yet fulfilled it. If we have not yet fulfilled it, we have more work to do. Or, as Robert Frost famously put it, I have “Miles to go before I sleep. Miles to go before I sleep.”

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