us have been given many more blessings than we have
received. We do not take time to be blessed or make the
space for it. We may have filled our lives so full of
other things that we have no room to receive our
blessings. One of my patients once told me that she has an
image of us all being circled by our blessings, sometimes
for years, like airplanes in a holding pattern at an
airport, stacked up with no place to land. Waiting for a
moment of our time, our attention.
with serious illness have often let go of a great deal;
their illness has created an opening in their lives for
the first time. They may discover ways to receive all the
blessings they are given, even those that were given long
ago. Such people have shown me how to receive my
years ago I cared for a woman called Mae Thomas. Mae had
grown up in Georgia and while she had lived in Oakland,
California, for many years, she had in some profound way
never left the holy ground of her childhood. She had
worked hard all her life, cleaning houses in order to
raise seven children and more than a few grandchildren. By
the time I met her, she had grown old and was riddled with
celebrated life. Her laugh was a pure joy. It made you
remember how to laugh yourself. All these years later,
just thinking of her makes me smile. As she became sicker,
I began to call her every few days to check in on her.
would always answer the phone in the same way. I would say
“Mae, how ya doin’?” and she would chuckle and
reply, “I’m blessed, Sister. I am blessed.”
The night before she
died, I called, and her family had brought the phone to her.
“Mae,” I said. “It’s Rachel.” I could hear her coughing
and clearing her throat, looking to find breath enough to speak in
a lung filled with cancer, willing herself past a fog of morphine
to connect to my voice. Tears stung my eyes. “Mae,” I said.
“It’s Rachel. How ya doin’?” There was a sound I could not
identify, which slowly unwrapped itself into a deep chuckle.
“I’m blessed, Rachel. I am blessed,” she told me. Mae was
one of those people. And so, perhaps, are we all.
reminds us that just to live is holy. Just to be is a blessing. If
Buber is right, what keeps us from receiving life’s blessings?
It is not always so simple a thing as a lack of time. Often we may
not recognize a blessing when it is given, or we may have ideas
about life that keep us from experiencing what we already have.
Sometimes we become frozen in the past or unaware of the potential
in the present. We may even come to feel entitled to what has been
given us by grace. Or we may become so caught up in what is
missing in the world that we allow our hearts to break. There are
many ways to feel empty in the midst of our blessings.
We can bless
others only when we feel blessed ourselves. Blessing life may be
more about learning how to celebrate life than learning how to fix
life. It may require an appreciation of life as it is and an
acceptance of much in life that we cannot understand. It may mean
developing an eye for joy. It is not necessary to sit in judgment
in order to move things forward, and our anger may not be the most
potent tool for change. Most important, it requires the humility
to know that we are not in this task of restoring the world alone.
Larry knew none
of these things. He and his wife had been coming to see me as a
couple for a few months. His wife came to their final appointment
alone. “Where is Larry?” I asked her. “He got a call from
Washington,” she told me. “He was still on the phone when I
left.” “But didn’t he promise to take Wednesdays off?” I
asked. She looked at me and just smiled. “I’m leaving,” she
told me. “I thought if I could get him here, he might focus on
me and the kids long enough for me to tell him.”
My heart sank. I
had met Larry ten years before when he was first diagnosed with
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was twenty-nine at the time, a young
stockbroker with a promising future. Two words from a doctor had
taken all that away. Larry and his wife had fought back. Deeply in
love, they had supported each other through a year of brutal
chemotherapy. Their children were small, and there was much to
live for. But eight months after his chemotherapy was complete,
the cancer returned. This time Larry had a bone marrow transplant.
Back then one out of two people who underwent this procedure died.
Larry took this chance because he loved life fiercely. And he was
one of the lucky ones.
He emerged from
this treatment a changed man. “There is more to life than making
money,” he had told me back then. Convinced that his life had
been spared for a reason, he felt he had to use his time to make a
difference. He left the world of business and began working in the
new field of conservation. Over the next ten years, conservation
became a nationwide movement, and Larry became a man possessed. He
began working a fifty-hour week. And then a sixty-hour week. Now
he traveled almost constantly and, when he was at home, worked far
into the night by fax and e-mail. He ate and slept irregularly.
Months went by without his having a talk with his children, an
evening with his wife, or any time for himself. He lived on the
edge of burnout. But there was always something more to be done,
another project, another cause. His wife and children had been
lonely at first, but gradually they had built a life without him.
“Tell him that I would like to see him,” I told his wife.
“I’ll tell him after I give him the news,” she said.
Larry came in a
few days later. He sat down wearily in the chair opposite. I was
shocked at his appearance. “Carol said you wanted to talk with
said. “She told me she was leaving.”
replied. “She told me, too.”
He began to cry.
“Ten years ago, I was losing my life,” he told me. “I
didn’t lose it then, but I’ve lost it now.”
“What was it
like for you back then?” I asked him.
he said. “Life was slipping through my fingers. I felt that I
was running out of time.” He paused. “I still feel that
way,” he told me. “The world is dying. We may not have another
We sat looking at
each other in silence. My heart ached for this good man. “When
was the last time that you ate with your family?” I asked him.
He shook his
head. “I don’t remember.”
“Or the last
time you went to sleep without setting an alarm clock?” He shook
his head again. “Do you remember the last time that you played a
game or read a story to your children?”
remember,” he said softly.
you treat a spotted owl in this way?” He looked down at the
floor and shook his head. I saw that he had begun to cry again.
think I can go on,” he said.
I told him that I
understood how important his work was. Silently he nodded. “Has
serving life made you happy?”
He looked at me,
confused. “How can serving life make you happy?” he asked me.
“Service requires sacrifice.”
But perhaps not.
One of the fundamental principles of real service is taught many
times a day aboard every airplane in the United States. Larry, who
flies more than a million miles every year, had heard it hundreds
of times without recognizing its relevance to him. It is the part
just before takeoff when the stewardess says, “If the cabin
loses pressure, the oxygen masks will fall from above. Put your
own mask on first before you try to help the person next to
you.” Service is based on the premise that all life is worthy of
our support and commitment. For Larry, this was true of every life
except his own.
If I wished to
defeat those who wanted to use their lives to make a difference,
this is exactly the way in which I would go about it. Few such
people would be tempted from their purpose by fame, or power, or
even by wealth. But I could confuse them and stop them in just the
same way Larry found himself stopped. I could use their own
dedication against them, driving them to work until they became so
depleted and empty that they could no longer go on. I would make
certain that they never discovered that blessing life is about
filling yourself up so that your blessings overflow onto others.
doctor and author Rachel Naomi Remen was young, she was
caught between two different views of life: that of her
rabbi grandfather and that of her highly academic,
research-oriented parents, who believed religion was the
opiate of the masses. As Remen gravitated toward academics
and serving the world as a medical doctor, her grandfather
became an "island of mysticism in a vast sea of
science." But over time, Remen discovered that two
seemingly divergent paths could lead to the same
destination, especially as she learned to blend her
spiritual beliefs with her medical treatment.