Julie Reisman was used to surmounting difficulties. 85% deaf, she learned to lip-read and, with the help of hearing aids, managed to succeed in the world of those blessed with hearing. She had her own business designing, producing, and installing décor for shopping malls. Her first marriage ended in divorce, leaving her with one daughter. At the age of 35, Julie started to connect with her Jewish roots and became religiously observant.
Then, when she was 38, she married Bruce, the man of her dreams. Bruce shared custody of his three daughters from his first marriage, so Julie happily found herself the dedicated mother of a close-knit family. Bruce was a successful professional. They lived comfortably in a big house in an upscale suburb. For ten years, Julie was living her dream.
On a wintery morning in 2009, the dream abruptly ended. Bruce, 48 years old, fell down stairs and hit his head. He died almost immediately.
The shock of her husband’s death was followed by another shock. Of his three life insurance policies, he had let two of them lapse. This included the largest policy, which would have supported his three daughters. Bruce had also neglected to write a will, and to change the beneficiary of his retirement accounts after his first wife divorced him.
By law, half of the large house and Bruce’s other assets should have gone to his first wife, but she and her daughters sued Julie and managed to get 100%, leaving Julie with nothing. Even worse, she turned Bruce’s daughters against Julie. Almost overnight, Julie lost her husband, her close-knit family, her house, and her financial security.
Naturally, Julie felt angry and resentful. “Throughout the entire two and a half years of litigation,” she recalls, “I knew I needed to plug the anger and resentment. At the same time I didn’t want to. I wanted to wallow in my misery. I wanted to make others miserable along with me. I also wanted to stop being miserable and go back to being the upbeat, positive, happy person that I inherently am. But I feared that if I let go of my anger and resentment that I would also be letting go of my rightful inheritance!”
ANTIDOTE TO ANGER
Julie realized that she was standing at a crossroads. She could spend the rest of her life in anger and bitterness or she could choose to grateful and happy. “I decided that I needed to find a way back to my former, positive self, “ she explains. “So I started to practice gratitude as an antidote to my anger.”
Julie had lost her job several months after Bruce died, and she was literally being forced out of her house, so there was nothing to keep her in the upscale town where she and Bruce had lived. She decided to move to a less expensive area, and chose Baltimore. She rented a small apartment. There, she would sit at her computer and make long lists of all that she was grateful for:
For being alive
for finding the Jewish community of Baltimore
that my parents are both alive and loving and supportive
that my brother moved to Baltimore
for my daughter
for my son-in-law
for my grandchild
for having found a beautiful apartment in Baltimore to rent
for all my friends
for having had ten years of “wedded bliss” with Bruce
for the fact that hearing aids exist
for my car
for finding myself living within walking distance to Rabbi Shmuel Silber’s shul where I met many of my new friends
for God’s ever-present Providence
The lists went on and on. “I would go through my day noticing and being grateful for every little thing.”
Then doors started to open for Julie.
She needed to find a job to support herself. She had worked in resource development for non-profit organizations. She sent her resume out to her friends, asking them to forward it. One friend sent Julie’s resume to the Jewish Museum in Baltimore.
Avi Decter, the head of the Jewish museum, had Julie’s resume on his desk and was about to look at it when he was interrupted by a knock at his office door. In walked the woman who worked as the museum’s resource developer. She told Avi that her husband had been transferred to a different state, so she was giving the museum 30 days’ notice that she was resigning. When she left, Avi looked down at the paper in front of him. It was Julie’s resume, applying for the exact job that had just been vacated.
Julie’s gratitude list now expanded to mention her job, a pleasant work environment, a kind boss, and compatible co-workers. In addition, she was grateful that the Orthodox community in Baltimore welcomed her with open arms. Like a camera, the more she focused on what she had, the more what she had lost faded into the blurry background.
One day Avi deposited a pile of papers on Julie’s desk, and told her that he wanted her to write a grant proposal. “I don’t do grant proposals,” she flatly told him.
“Now you do,” was his sparse reply.
Avi taught Julie how to write up a grant proposal. Of the four foundations she sent the proposal to, three agreed to donate funds, an astounding record of success.
In August, 2011, Julie decided to fulfill a lifelong desire to move to Israel. Appraising her situation honestly, she realized that, given her deafness, her employment prospects in Israel were nil. Her Hebrew was not good enough to speak nor to lip-read. She could not work on any job that required telephone communication. Acclimating to a new country at the age of 51 would be difficult; with the language barrier and her deafness, perhaps impossible.
Julie decided to make aliyah anyway. Her daughter and son-in-law were already living in Israel. While Bruce had generously helped support them, after his death they too were struggling financially. Julie calculated that one household is cheaper to run than two, and that if she lived with her daughter’s family, she could scrape by on the Social Security disability payments she would receive, as well as having the joy of helping to take care of her grandchildren.
Shortly after arriving in Israel, Julie got a job writing grant proposals for the Joint Distribution Committee, which is Israel’s highest paying employer of grant writers. “No coincidence,” Julie insists, smiling. “It’s all good.”
Gratitude, however, is not a one-time fix, but a daily choice. Julie still struggles against the pain of being without a husband and a home of her own. She would like to get married again, and she wishes she had enough money to buy a house. “But,” she says with determination, “the anger no longer colors my life.” Every day anew Julie paints her life with gratitude.
THE COUNTER-INTUITIVE FORMULA
The 19th century Rabbi Natan of Breslov taught a counter-intuitive formula. He taught that when you face a problem in life, the more you complain about the problem, the longer you perpetuate the problem. On the other hand, when you thank God for everything, including the problem itself, the problem disappears.
This formula works, explains Rabbi Natan, because God hates complaining. Spiritually, the roots of our long and tragic exile go back to when the Israelites, freed from bondage in Egypt, resisted entering the Land of Israel. Instead of appreciating the spiritual advantages of the land, they complained about the dangers and difficulties of conquering it. The night they spent crying and complaining was the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av. God said to them, “On this night, you cried for no reason. I will give you a reason to cry.” On that date, Tisha B’Av, both temples were destroyed and other great tragedies befell the Jewish People.
Rabbi Natan wrote that we are not suffering because our ancestors in the desert complained. We are suffering because we are still complaining! Complaining is a rejection of the way God runs His world, a failure to appreciate the daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute kindnesses God bestows.
Complaining is the result of focusing on the hole rather than the donut.
The opposite of complaining is gratitude. Julie certainly had much to complain about: her husband’s sudden death, rejection by the step-daughters she had helped to raise, the “unfair” loss of her financial assets, etc. Yet, by composing long daily gratitude lists, she focused on what she has rather than on what she’s missing. The result: She didn’t get back her husband, her family, or her big house, but she did get a life of happiness and Divine blessing.
WHAT GRATITUDE CAN ACCOMPLISH
Professor Robert A. Emmons of the University of California in Davis performed psychological studies to investigate the effects of gratitude on the persons who practice it. (See his book, Thanks!) He found that the subjects who practiced gratitude by writing down five occurrences they were grateful for every week over a period of ten weeks were 25% happier than the control group.
Critics of the study pointed out that the subjects were healthy college students. Could gratitude also improve the lives of people who had genuine reasons to complain? Professor Emmons conducted another study, recruiting as subjects adults who suffered from neuromuscular disorders that resulted in chronic pain and muscle atrophy. The 21-day experiment revealed that, compared to the control group, the subjects who practiced gratitude were more satisfied with their lives, were more optimistic, and slept better.
An article in PN Magazine recommends how to practice gratitude: “Substitute grateful thoughts for ungrateful ones by identifying the good in your life—friends, transportation, family, e-mail—no matter how small. Keep in mind such simple conveniences as warm clothes, running water, indoor plumbing, and living in a free and compassionate country.”
PN Magazine stands for “Paraplegia News.” Richard Holicky, the writer of this article touting gratitude, is himself a paraplegic – he suffered a spinal cord injury in 1989. Before his paralysis, he was a farmer, woodsman, and miner. Instead of complaining about the abilities and activities he lost, Mr. Holicky expresses gratitude for the blessings of running water and indoor plumbing.
Complaining vs. gratitude. Julie Reisman and Richard Holicky courageously and adamantly chose gratitude. Which will you choose?
Sara Yoheved Rigler is the author of the new God Winked: Tales and Lessons from My Spiritual Adventures. Sara Yoheved Rigler is starting a new group of The Ladder, her weekly teleconference spiritual growth workshop for single Jewish women interested in marriage. For more information, see http://www.sararigler.com/ie/theladder.php.