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Overcoming Life's Disappointments
By Harold S. Kushner
192 pages; $11.95
When life gives you lemons - well, we all know what to do. But sometimes the lemons are hard to squeeze, and sometimes we forget where we put the juicer. Where do we turn for guidance in distilling the lemonade from our bitter experiences?
Best-selling author Rabbi Harold S. Kushner proposes a fresh answer in his recent book, Overcoming Life's Disappointments: Learning from Moses How to Cope with Frustration.
Kushner, perhaps best known for When Bad Things Happen to Good People, doesn't pretend to be God in his latest effort, nor does he claim to be writing an advanced biblical exegesis on the last four books of the Torah. Instead, he draws on the story of Moses with the aid of some light commentary and peppers his insights with references to cultural figures ranging from Sigmund Freud to Christopher Reeve and from Henrietta Szold to Pat Conroy.
More a series of anecdotes and illustrations than a step-by-step guide to beating frustration, Kushner's book offers practical advice gleaned from the experience of others on the importance of dreaming, the transformative power of adversity and the necessity of growing up and acknowledging the reality of our limitations. He relates biblical stories and interpretations alongside personal accounts of counseling congregants and words of wisdom from refrigerator magnets, creating a motley narrative that, though somewhat repetitive and at times disjointed, hammers home the lemons-to-lemonade message in enough guises for every reader to find a point of connection.
The role of Moses in the book is that of an informal guide, a paradigm for accepting the less-than-ideal outcomes that accompany many achievements. From the very beginning, Kushner points out, Moses suffers for his desire to help others, being banished from Egypt after killing to protect the weak. This theme continues throughout his life, as he repeatedly faces a stubborn Pharaoh and then an ungrateful nation and finally dies without realizing his dream of entering the promised land. And still, Kushner notes, "his eyes were not dimmed nor his vigor abated" (Deuteronomy 34:7) - he could accept both the failures and successes in himself and the Israelites, and his love and dedication remained strong until the end.
Examining the particulars of Moses's life, Kushner posits that the leader of the Jewish people managed this because he had a sense of a higher purpose, because he recognized that he was not to blame for all that went wrong, and perhaps most importantly, because of "his ability to cherish the broken pieces of his idealistic dream while replacing them with an alternative vision tempered by experience and reality."
The inspirational advice Kushner offers is all the more powerful because of his own disappointments, particularly the loss of a young son to illness. He brings up this experience only rarely and always modestly in Overcoming Life's Disappointments, and it is this refusal to dwell on his own pain while dispensing wisdom to others that both affirms his sincerity and reinforces one of the book's most important messages: Focus not on what has happened to you, but on what you can do to make things better.
In addition, his Torah knowledge is apparent in his writing and refreshingly positive in its attitude toward intensive mitzva observance. Not only does he back up his biblical extrapolations with an eclectic range of commentators (mostly unnamed, but recognizable enough to those familiar with their work), he devotes a chunk of the first chapter to explaining why commandments beyond the original 10 are necessary and desirable. He does not content himself with "nice thoughts" based on Bible tales, but makes an effort to ground his thesis in the text.
Of course, in keeping with the theme of the book, Kushner's delivery is not perfect. Touches of chauvinism show through when he describes the disappointments most common to men and women - "For the most part, men's dreams center on success in business, women's dreams on fulfilling relationships" - and when he cites research that women "might be devastated" upon losing in a competitive setting due to an upbringing that focuses more on cooperative games than on activities that involve keeping score.
Despite efforts to clarify that these generalizations in no way apply to everyone, Kushner consistently gives examples of work-related letdowns for men and family or relationship-centered disappointments for women, even though eight chapters would presumably afford him ample space to alternate these.
And although his confirmed preference for repairing a marriage over divorce is admirable, his advice to one woman on the subject of infidelity - "Are you seeing a selfish, unfaithful liar? Or are you seeing a man who is good and strong in some ways but too weak to resist this particular temptation?" - and his subsequent praise of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's mother, who lauded her husband's positive qualities rather than leaving him for his constant cheating, could justifiably ruffle some feathers.
However, I choose to follow Rabbi Kushner's advice and notice this book's positive features along with its detractions, accepting the faults that every author has and declaring it a moving, thought-provoking and inspirational aid to any soul that has known sorrow.