Part of a yearlong series on resilience in spiritual life.
Life cycle events – and especially weddings – often conjure advice that can have a biblical feel. Something about the importance of such life cycle events inspires people to dig deep and get real about what's most important in life. Recently I celebrated a couple's marriage under the chuppah, and soon after the family matriarch said something I hope I'll never forget.
I was at a long table with the groom's family and seated next to the family matriarch. Music blared, plates clattered, and a din of merriment surrounded us. Suddenly, with one hand resting on the back of her chair, the family matriarch quickly swiveled to face me. Her voice popped like a cork as she said, “You only get one life.” A deep breath followed, then advice poured out like Champagne from a magnum-sized bottle. “Better make the best of it. Figure out who you are, what you are good at and get on with it.”
With her halo of shiny gray hair and lean-in approach, the family matriarch became my Torah teacher for the theology of resilience.
Drawing on her long life experience, she had set aside both youthful optimism and adult pessimism in favor of full-grown realism. What she taught me is that with awareness of one’s aptitudes, moving toward self-actualization, we can take a realistic view of life’s journey. This kind of realism nourishes resilience.
The matriarch’s advice evoked for me two words from Torah: Lech L’cha. The first word is a command, “Go!” The second, translated literally, means “to you.” Go to yourself? Perhaps this phrase suggests "come into yourself": realize your potential and talents. With the matriarch's words still in my ears, I read Lech L’cha as an instruction to figure out who you are.
One's inward journey often seeks awareness, growth, self-knowledge and making meaning of life. These qualities are particularly important in confronting life's inevitable challenges. The inward journey can strip away illusions of all kinds – excess optimism unmoored from reality, and excess pessimism untethered to possibility. What emerges is a more realistic and balanced assessment of one’s talents and possibilities – both necessary for human resilience.
We strengthen resilience when we focus on activating our skills with a healthy dose of realism. The combination of self-actualization and realism is even more valuable when life becomes tumultuous. If we exercise our capacity to “get on with it” from a place of self-knowledge, we can better weather storms. The challenges of career moves, aging, illness or loss will be less likely to topple us. The realist, having acquired understanding, propels herself to action and is resilient in the face of change.
Like a matriarch celebrating the flow of life at a family wedding, Torah leans in when life gets noisy and messy. We are reminded to go to that place inside, where we recognize the best person we can be in the context of the life we have. The capacity to find ourselves and derive meaning from our lives always will boost us when we face change and adversity.
The wedding guests gathered. Champagne was poured. Glasses were lifted for a toast: L'chayim – "To life!" And the family matriarch beamed, showing us all how to live and a quality of life worth living for.
Rabbi Evan Krame