In Rabbi Joe’s class this week on Mussar, the Jewish ethical, educational and cultural movement that developed in the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe, I heard the words of the author Anne Tyler echo in my ears. In her book The Beginner’s Goodbye, she startles the reader right off by having the main character say,
“I have a couple of handicaps. I may not have mentioned that.”
We can hardly do better in grappling with how to live our lives than to ponder the words of Proverbs that gave rise to the Mussar Movement. If our journey is to learn to do what is right and just and fair, to understand words of insight, to ultimately gain some semblance of wisdom, then it’s never too late to begin to wrestle with those handicaps that hinder us from living closer to our ethical core, from finding the emotional quiet that can allow us to be more in control of our thoughts and feelings.
I choose to start with the idea of grace and the sense of gratitude. What can bring me to a standstill, though, is my handicap of not always recognizing, understanding, or even embracing these ideas when they tap me on the shoulder. Lovely as the expression “Go with grace” is, I confess I don’t fully understand it. The religious concept that it is some kind of gift of salvation from God is too foreign to me to make any sense. Perhaps I am handicapped by being too grounded in this world and the sense of my short stay in it. Instead of relying on some formulaic religious artifice, I prefer to think of “grace” as an openness, a pathway of choice that can let me find whatever it is that defines me. Of course, I also have the choice of not following this path, of not pursuing, not going with or after whatever it is that we define as “grace.” Many of us would prefer not to make the sometimes painful journey for whatever reasons. Our loss.
Gratitude, for me, is somewhat related but is a tad easier to understand. Today I heard a man talking about his revelations when he was on the airliner a while back that was forced to touch down in the Hudson River. As the plane descended and the engines were turned off, the silence gripped him as he and his fellow passengers tried to comprehend the sobering command from the captain: “Brace for impact.” In those precious moments, he thought about his life and how he had lived it. If he were given a second chance, he concluded he would never take another moment for granted.
Simply stated, he was quickly coming to terms that this life was precious in ways he had never bothered to take the time before to appreciate in any meaningful way. His core being was undefined and he had little grounding in how to deal with what could be his pending death. But he was able to lift himself out of what would have sent most of us into a spiral of panic. Somehow, he kept his thoughts focused on his will to live to see his young children grown into adulthood, to find his wife at his side as they held one another’s hands in a world to come. He defined his demeanor as a form of grace in the imminent moments before he was to die. He did this by deflecting his own fears away from himself. In these few seconds, he chose to think of the promise, hope and joy of the others in his life who gave him his core strength. He had no training nor had ever given much much serious thought to how he would react to such a time. He simply made his choice with the “grace” that came from within him. In the end, he found the fuller meaning of gratitude.
Few of us, fortunately, will ever be “tested” in such a dramatic way. But we will all eventually have to face some sort of music. I don’t pretend to know how to prepare for that eventuality, but I took the moment to exhale slowly in listening to how this fellow traveler looked into his own sense of self and found his own answer. He definitely chose to go with grace.