Rabbi Kushner has woven a fascinating series of essays together to establish a new way to think about the meaningfulness of your life choices. Spiritually, he finds many people torn between the desire to achieve significance and the call of the consciences. Like the young Jacob, some will obtain their desires by cutting corners that offend their consciences.
Drawing on his many years as a rabbi, he shares what he has learned at many death beds. Few people are concerned about dying. Those who have done good things in their lives are almost always at peace. Those who regret the timing of their deaths wish for a little more time, so that they might yet leave some marks of goodness behind them. From that perspective, he gently points out that we can achieve both the significance and the clear conscience that we crave by focusing our attention on have positive influences on others in supporting roles as family member, friend, and occasional helping hand to strangers. The move, It's a Wonderful Life, is used as an example. The Jimmy Stewart character doesn't realize how all the little things he did affected so many lives, which in turn affected so many other lives. We, too, tend to be blind to the potential influence we have.
The book has a kindness and gentleness that make its message welcome and warming.
In chapter one, the subject is the two voices of God. This essay considers the models of competition with others and our heart-felt desire to share compassion, and how the two often operate at odds with one another in young people. He ascribes the competition to a desire for significance, that many psychologists would echo as a deep human need.
In chapter two, the story of Jacob's transformation from trickster to being firmly founded in God's will is featured. I especially liked the way that the pain of winning by trickery and being tricked in turn by Laban probably affected how Jacob felt about himself.
In chapter three, you are encouraged to decide what kind of person you want to be. Rather than ask all to seek perfection in sainthood, he argues for a mixture of human competitiveness and compassion that allows us to strive and to care. This chapter includes interesting references to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and an episode of the original Star Trek series in which Kirk is divided into a good and a bad version by a transporter problem.
In chapter four, there is an interesting discussion of the psychological impacts of justice from the point of view of those who are harmed. The experience of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is recounted along with a new type of trial in the United States where attempts are made to improve how the victims and their families feel.
In chapter five, you will learn about how wholeness (personal integrity) can be achieved. The primary example is that of Mr. Aaron Feuerstein, CEO of Malden Mills, who rebuilt his factory after a disastrous fire while keeping his employees on full salary for the first three months.
In chapter six, the key concept is that God's presence is manifested on Earth in our relations with those we love, both family and friends.
Chapter seven explores the notion of how supporting roles have big impacts too. Most of us can have these roles. If we were movie actors, we could even get an Academy award for doing this well.
Chapter eight is a thoughtful discussion of our influence on other people. I particularly liked the reference to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and how all those who died had recently learned how to love. Young people often write to me to find out the theme of that book, and don't understand it even after lots of hints about what those who died had in common. Perhaps you have to know human love beyond your family before that message can become part of your heart.
The book ends on this note from the Talmud. "A good person, even in death, is still alive." That quote means to me that our impact is carried on in the reality and memories of those we have touched who are still alive.
Although Rabbi Kushner is obviously of the Jewish faith, he is remarkably ecumenical in his ability to reflect the perspectives of many religious and nonreligious beliefs and traditions. He has a practical bent that I appreciate, as well. For example, he points out that teens who are feeling out of sorts often respond well to taking on community service roles. That too has been my observation,
After you finish reading this rewarding book, think about how you could combine things you enjoy doing with having a more positive influence on others. For example, even if all you do is watch television, you could go watch television with people who have no one to keep them company.
Be significant in the goodness you create by following your conscience!