This is a glorious morning. The sun is shining brightly. Mountains of snow are melting a slow melt, the good kind of melt, the kind that seeps deep into the ground preparing soil and seed for a vibrantly lush spring. My cat, Pele, is curled up in bed beside me (yes, I take my laptop to bed with me when I write… sometimes it just works better that way!) Richard is in a good mood putzing around the house. We have plans for the day. It’s Valentine’s Day! Yes, this is a glorious morning. It is easy to give thanks for all that we have: a house to shelter us, a bed to sleep in, warmth from the cold, health, food to eat, glorious mornings, good friends, extraordinary family, etc. It is a wonderful day to be alive!
As I sit here relishing the moment, a thought suddenly cropped up … I didn’t invite the thought, it really did just crop up! What about those not-so-glorious mornings? What about dreary mornings? Or sad mornings? Or downright rotten-to-the-core I don’t want to wake up mornings? Are those mornings good, too? Is there thanks to be offered on those mornings? What about times when we grieve some major, life-altering life-shattering moment? Are we supposed to give thanks on those mornings, too? How can we? Wow, what can I say to that?
I am in the midst of reading a book on emunah/faith. I find it disturbing that the author paints a picture of simplicity that at first glance appears to me to be rather shallow. It is a “smile all the time” kind of book. In all honesty, I am suspicious of those who always have a smile on their face and expect everyone else to follow suit. I have in the past lumped those folks into the “delusional” category. Yes, I believe that a positive attitude makes for a positive, uplifting life. No one wants to be around a perpetual grump. But the smile plastered across the face all the time kind of optimist just doesn’t seem real, and to be honest, puts me off.
On the other hand, it is easy to be optimistic and to smile from ear to ear on a glorious morning when everything is bright and sunny and going my way. But that seems shallow, too. As I think of it, emunah is abiding belief in the good, and an absolute trust in an all good G-d, a belief that goes far deeper than the circumstantial. Even when all hell breaks loose, a person of emunah has a calm, centered aura based in the knowledge that everything ultimately works for good. Emunah does produce a smile–that deep smile and trust that knows gam zu l’tovah, this, too, is for the good. There are people who exemplify this kind of emunah, and yes, they smile a lot. They give thanks, a lot. Have they ever had yucky days? Yes, beyond anything I have ever experienced, yet they continue to believe, and to smile the vibrant smiles of true believers.
Example: Bethany Hamilton was an award-winning surfer in her age bracket. At the age of 13, she was attacked by a shark and lost one arm all the way up to her shoulder. Many thought her surfing days were over. Not Bethany. Within one year of the attack, she was surfing again, and competing, and winning…and being thankful. Bethany never doubted that she would be back surfing and competing again. We naysayers who saw or heard the news reports had serious doubts. Though Bethany lived the harrowing experience, she had emunah to keep doing what she does, and doing it quite well.
Example: Wilma Rudolph, the legendary track star who won three gold medals in one Olympics, recalls when she was a small child that her goal was to be able to walk without leg braces. No one who worked with her for her healing, or knew her at that time in her life ever believed she would be a runner, much less an Olympic star. But Wilma had emunah and soared to unimaginable heights.
Example: Another athlete, Paul Hamm, had a disastrous fall during a gymnastic routine at a recent Olympics. He was one of the stars expected to medal in his event, but the fall was so spectacular no one gave him a chance of medaling at all. However, Paul wasn’t buying that. He followed that failure with a pommel horse routine that was sheer perfection, and won the all around gold medal by .012 point! Paul had emunah.
In each case, she or he had a really yucky don’t-ask-me-to-smile moment, day, or season. Yet, each of the people highlighted above will tell you that their best days came after apparent disaster. One more example I simply can’t pass up.
Greg Mortenson. Child of missionaries, he grew up in an extraordinary household and lived for years in Tanzania, in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. When he reached adulthood, rather than follow his parents into the mission field, Greg channeled his energy and adventuresome spirit into mountain climbing. In fact, he was a world-class mountaineer and very well-known in his field. However, a harrowing climbing incident changed the trajectory of his life. While climbing the second highest mountain in the world, known to climbers as K2, he became disoriented and lost his way. Days of wandering, lost and alone, led him to the tiny village of Korphe high in the mountains of Pakistan where he collapsed. He did not know the language of the villagers, and they certainly did not know English. Greg was pretty much “out of it” for a while, but when he regained full alertness, he saw that villagers were tending to all his needs. As he regained strength, he began to explore the village. However, in the midst of the grandeur of the high mountains of Pakistan, Greg Mortenson was extremely disturbed at the sight of 82 village children attending school in the open (78 boys and 4 girls.) They had no paper, no books, no building, no furniture, no teacher. But the children were intent on learning, and were using sticks to write their lessons in the sand. Mightily moved by the sight of the children arduously working on their lessons sans teacher, and wanting desperately to do something for the villagers who saved his life, Greg made a promise that he would return to the village and build a school. Greg, being a man of integrity, did not forget his promise when he returned to the comforts of his home in the states. He worked, pled, borrowed, and finagled the money to build the school. He returned to that village a year later and through quite a few ordeals and obstacles, managed to fulfill his promise. Having kept his word, now he could return to mountain climbing. Not. When another village saw what Greg had done, they, too, asked for his help to build schools in their villages. This happened over and over, one village after another. Greg built schools. Now, over 15 years later, Greg Mortenson has built hundreds of schools. He has even expanded into Afghanistan. In the midst of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, he has built schools for girls, a taboo, and schools for boys, too. The book, “Three Cups of Tea,” tells his story. Greg’s failure was his biggest blessing, and led him to his life’s calling. As is often the case, bad days and disasters are the doorways to finding our purpose and experiencing unbounded blessings.
On a more “mundane” level, with folks like you and me, we are not necessarily looking for the spectacular, rather we are simply trying to work though our doubts. In doing so, we find ourselves at times wondering how this emunah stuff works. I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m on the road of learning myself. But one thing has become apparent to me as I witness the lives of those who exemplify emunah: the ability to offer heartfelt thanks when the days are glorious, and when not, when all is going their way, and when everything appears to be falling apart, when the sun is shining or when rain is falling. Emunah is the firm conviction that G-d is working a good work, that every event, every experience, every gain and every loss, is all for a good and a purpose which far surpasses our highest dreams and expectations. And that is worth smiling about!