Monday, March 10, 2008

The Optimism of Courage

My job is to inspire others. I scour the Talmud, Bible, as well as assorted periodicals, to find texts, ideas and anecdotes that inspire others.

But every so often, someone will turn to me and ask: “Rabbi, who inspires you?”. Although I may work in the inspiration business, at the end of the day, I too have a soul thirsty for inspiration.

People imagine that inspiration is best found among the learned and famous. Actually, that isn’t the case. The Talmudic sage Chanina said that he learned more from his friends and his students than he did from his teachers. My experience with inspiration is very much the same; it is often my congregants and students who inspire me the most.

Joanne, the most inspiring congregant I’ve ever known, died recently. She was a young woman in her 40’s, who’d battled a series of health problem that kept her hospitalized the vast majority of the last decade of her life. She inspired me with her resilience, fortitude and good humor. But most importantly, Joanne taught me about optimism.

Joanne was relentlessly optimistic. In her years in the hospital, her cheerful spirit warmed the hearts of everyone who met her. Members of the hospital staff became Joanne’s friends, and she became their confidante. An orderly who’d lost a child to suicide, found solace for the first time in years after speaking with Joanne. And throughout, her courageous spirit remained strong. When a doctor told her that she’d never be able to walk again, she immediately remarked “well, that’s what wheelchairs are for”.

Joanne taught me what optimism should be. Most people think optimism is all about the glasses; that is, either half empty glasses or rose colored glasses. Joanne taught me that optimism is much more than a positive perspective; it can be, indeed it must be, a defiant act of courage.

The optimism of courage goes beyond seeing the bright side of things – instead, it sees humor and hope as ammunition in the war against tragedy. All humans face the same adversary: the angel of death. Joanne heroically battled the angel of death with the only weapons she had, her smile and her optimism.

Joanne had wicked sense of gallows humor. Even while staring death in the eye, she could laugh. One day, in a heart to heart conversation, I mentioned to her that in my entire rabbinic career, I had never seen a case of tragic suffering like her own. A humorous remark or two followed, and somehow, by the end of the conversation, we were laughing together. But these jokes were more than shared laughter; actually Joanne was waging war, laughing in the face of the angel of death.

Joanne understood the optimism of courage. She will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

May her memory be a blessing for her family, and for happiness warriors everywhere.

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