Overcoming Life's Disappointments
by Harold S. Kushner
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
review by Jeffrey Needle
Many readers will recognize Rabbi Kushner as the fabulously successful author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In this huge best-seller, Kushner offered readers an explanation for evil—the old theodicy question—that bordered on a form of humanism that some found disturbing, but which most considered both believable and rational.
In this, his newest book, Kushner turns his attention to one of those "bad things" that afflicts us all: disappointment. He uses the life of Moses as a paradigm for understanding why life doesn't always turn out as well as we'd expected. Had Kushner opted to stay with the biblical text alone, his book would have been far less interesting. However, as would any good Talmudic scholar, he reads between the lines, lifts the text from the page to see what is hiding behind it, and presents a fuller and more realized look at the life of Moses.
It should come as no surprise that the life of the great Law-Giver has inspired a huge corpus of interpretation and legend. Kushner takes this and molds it into a book filled with hope and encouragement for all of us along life's journey.
It can be difficult sorting the historical from the mythic elements of Moses' life. As the central figure of Jewish religion and belief, he occupies an iconic place in the Hebrew pantheon. By placing Moses as the model for his exploration of how one handles life's disappointments, Kushner has selected a figure known widely as a complex person plagued by doubts and flaws, yet one who ultimately emerges as the great leader of the nation of Israel.
Thus we all can come to a place of acceptance where we can acknowledge how we fall short, and yet celebrate the victories that come our way. Central to Kushner's thesis is his contemplation of Moses' "humility," that aspect of his life that enabled him to remain open to God's leading and to correction from others. In a chapter titled "It's Not All About You," the author drags us, albeit kicking and screaming, out of our egos, correctly reminding us of our place in the cosmos:
Humility means recognizing that you are not God and it is not your job or responsibility to run the world. Some people are disappointed to learn that; most mentally healthy people are immensely relieved. Moses was able to surmount the problems and frustrations in his life because he understood that he was not God and could not be expected to be, and that God's plan for humanity did not depend solely on him. (p. 117)
Indeed, the more you delve into Kushner's interpretation of the life of Moses, the more you recognize the role egocentrism plays in our own tales of woe. The author pays close attention to our life journeys, and the expectations imposed upon those journeys by society in general and religion in particular. When these journeys don't end as expected—when marriage ends in divorce, when a career ends in failure—Kushner directs us to Moses' own ability to recover from his failures and, relying on God instead of his own wisdom and strength, return stronger than ever.
Kushner understands that people are looking for practical answers to life's most difficult questions, not for platitudes and sermonizing. It isn't possible for any person to have all the answers. I'm not sure if it's possible for any of us to know all of the questions. But one of the purposes of myth is to provide a paradigm for exploring the depths of our own psyches, and provide answers to some of these deep questions. Insofar as the quest for the authentic Moses involves the explication of the legends that have developed around him, Kushner shows that this quest can become a model for seekers looking for guidance.
Overcoming Life's Disappointments offers the reader some sensible answers, suggestions for softening life's journey, and ways of dealing with the inevitable disappointments. The key is seeing God as the center of our lives, as did Moses. Overcoming disappointment means putting aside any idea that the story is about "us," recognizing that the path is more meaningful when we look outside ourselves to the Divine that guides our lives, our journeys, even our myths.
©2006 Jeffrey Needle
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