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Motivated to Change
Mom with a View

Motivated to Change

Two recent books had a profound affect on me.


Healthy character development is both a prerequisite and an adjunct to achieving closeness to God. There are many texts on the subject to be pored over as we strive to grow. They offer insights and tools for change. But they aren’t the sole means of personal growth. Sometimes our life experiences lead us to “aha” moments and new ways of being. And sometimes the lives of (seemingly) ordinary people are the most inspirational of all. These are people who don’t obviously possess extraordinary gifts yet demonstrate unusual strength, courage and conviction when put to the test.

I read two dramatically different books recently that each affected me in profound ways, that encouraged me to feel that I had untapped strength and potential, that pushed me to strive for more.

One was After the Fire by Robin Gaby Fisher, the story of the friendship and courage of two college roommates who were severely burned in the January 2000 fire at Seton Hall University. With very limited financial resources yet with tremendous family and medical support, they transcended the excruciating pain of burn treatment (those passages in the book are truly harrowing), the grueling physical rehabilitation and the soul-numbing stares of strangers.

Throughout it all, their commitment to each other and to the opportunities of life remained strong. For those brief moments (and hopefully for a little while after) as I read their story, I put aside my trivial complaints to focus on the big picture and to recognize the blessing in my life -- with joy. Their courage and resilience inspired me to dig deeper, to reach higher.

On a totally different track, The Power of Half by Kevin Salwen and his daughter, Hannah, had a profound impact of another kind. Kevin Salwen is a former writer for the Wall Street Journal and perhaps many of you are already familiar with his story. Both Mr. Salwen and his wife had pursued fast-track jobs and achieved tremendous financial and professional success. They lived with their two children in a very large, historic home in Atlanta. Although they did give back to the community, it was in relatively small ways especially in proportion to their acquisitions and the time spent in their pursuit (this is not my interpretation; this is Mr. Salwen’s own description)

Their daughter was initially deemed the idealist in the family and when, stopped at a red light one day, she noticed a Mercedes on one side and a homeless man on the other, she was jarred by the juxtaposition. With all the enthusiasm and lack of experience of a teenager (!), she commented that “if that man had a less nice car, that man could have a meal.”

Although the world doesn’t usually operate in those simplistic terms, in the Salwen family’s situation, it basically did.

Hannah’s idealism was contagious and the family ultimately decided to sell the house and give half the proceeds to the charitable project of their choice.

The book is worth reading as the family grapples with the decision and the choices that follow in its aftermath, both individually and collectively.

And it makes you think. How much material excess do I have? Or conversely, what do I really need? How could I better help others? Maybe I have some time excess, some wasted moments that could be put to better use.

I’m not selling my house (the bank owns most of it anyway!) but perhaps there are smaller ways that I could be more giving, more cognizant and thoughtful of the needs of others.

How much poverty and misery do I turn a blind eye to? The Power of Half is a mussar (spiritual development) book in the truest sense of the word since it accomplishes the goal of introspection, evaluation and, please God, change.

I haven’t decided my course of action yet (I was thinking one pair of shoes for the homeless, one for me!) but I’m thinking about it. I recognize that if I don’t do something concrete, it’s all just empty words (mind that is, not theirs) so I’m trying. I’m think baby steps, one at a time. One more check. Five more minutes of giving. Moving slowly along the road to being different, and thereby making a difference.

June 5, 2010

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Chana Ruth, June 11, 2010 8:32 PM

To L.S.

Hi. I just wanted to apologize if my statements sounded like I thought you were selfish: not at all! I think Anonymous at #12 already said it better than I can. You sound like a very hard-working, kind person, and of course you have the right to enjoy the fruits of your labor! I just wanted to put out there in general (not just to you, I apologize if it seemed that my entire post was directed toward you) that hard work is no guarantee of success, and ultimately everything we have, even every breath we take, is a gift from Hashem. It was a reminder to myself as well. I agree, some people seem to sit back and not make an effort in life, but even so, we should not fall prey to the illusion that we who have studied and worked hard are making our own "fate," or give in to the urge to pass judgment on those we think are somehow less motivated. We do not know anyone's reality but our own. And for those of us blessed with any measure of success (educational, financial or otherwise), our biggest reward is being able to help others. That's why Hashem gave us the mitzvah of tzeddakah! :) Shabbat shalom!

(12) Anonymous, June 10, 2010 5:13 PM

Of course you are not selfish, and i do hear where you are coming from. I admire you for your accomplishments and know it must have taken a lot of effort and sacrifice. To be proud of ones accomplishments is normal and fine, however, i think having that sort of attitude where you put down those who have ended up in a challenging place can be a dangerous thought process to have. As i said earlier, Hashem has His plan, and while hard work and free will is a big part of success, ultimately, hard work or not, God controls everything. If G-d wants someone to be rich, He will find a way to get them the money, and if He wants them to be poor, no matter how hard a person tries, they will not be successful. You were able to use your accomplishments to help those in need, but in no way should those people in need be considered less hard working or less valuable. As you probably know, everyone is given a different set of "assets", a different lot in life, and what they do with what they have is what counts. But we rarely know what people have, and those who were able to overcome obstacles and reach their highest expectations are very blessed. I'm sure that from working with troubles and abused teens, you see that while we do have free will, life is more complicated than that, and even with free will, each person has their limitations. Again, I wish those who were able to succeed can see just how lucky they are, and thank G-d for the opportunity to help those who have less. Just remember, life can change in the blink of an eye.

(11) L.S., June 10, 2010 5:41 AM

Former sexual assault counselor and non-profit worker

For all of you people who are implying that I am selfish, I have worked as a sexual assault counselor, a mediator for troubled teens, and have directed a program for homeless children. I am NOT a selfish person!!! I am grateful for all that Hashem has given me, all I am saying is that Hashem did not hand me my degrees or my accomplishments while I was sitting on the couch eating chips. We have free will, and some people chose to drop out of high school and pop out babies as teenagers whereas I chose to spend my time studying until all hours of the early morning and working towards a career.

(10) Anonymous, June 9, 2010 3:19 PM



(9) Kaela, June 8, 2010 10:43 PM

enough for everyone

I once did a study with a group of women on poverty. We watched a series of videos and one satement has remained with me since. "If everone lived with just enough there would be enough for everyone." How true.

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