I have a friend who married rather late in life. She is still waiting for that special moment of unabashed elation. Her husband is, by her account, a person who matched her wish list, which is identical to the one my mother would have written for me and to the one her mother wrote for her. He is an orthodontist, tall, and religious (in that order). The problem is that she is tired of his promises to move them out of their small, antiseptic suburban box and into a home with a back and front yard, large living room and the potential for original decor. He has huge student loan debt, and is unwilling to incur more debt for the time being. The day she moves is the day she plans as being her happiest.

Until then, each day is tinged with a subtle shade of gray despair. Whatever voices she hears, the one that tells her, "Life has cheated me," is the loudest.

Of course whenever she does move, she will inevitably have to face the day when the loudest voice is asking, "Is that all there is?"

At the ripe old age of 18, I was sure of one thing: I didn't want to marry a man for the sake of financial security, for gaining status or as a refuge from loneliness. I didn't want to marry a man who had no vision of what we would build. Within several months I was standing with my groom at our engagement party. The focus and resolve of my thoughts had become reality in the world of action. Throughout the years of our marriage, with all of the dramatic ups and downs that are inherent to a relationship based on growth, nothing ever eclipsed the sheer joy of the moment when my new life began. I chose that moment then, and a million times since then.

I am not any better than my friend, just luckier. I also have voices. My parents had a vision for me, which I considered. But in the end, I let my own voice be the loudest, the strongest, the one I knew that would set me on the right path.

Real joy comes from the good feeling of knowing that your life is not being lived in vain.

Each of us is unique. We were all created with a specific mission, one that no one else has ever done or will ever do. Real joy comes from the good feeling of knowing that you are on target, that your life is not being lived in vain.

In order to be self-actualized we must constantly ask ourselves who we are, where we are going and what we will need to get there. These questions are inherent to leading a happy and meaningful life. Most of us have a life script submitted by our parents, our peers, or our community which answers these questions. But are these answers right for us?

Portrait of a Life Fulfilled

Shraga Eizenstark never planned to be a hero. When he met the Heilbrun kids, something happened. Due to life circumstances, their father was unable to be much of a hands-on parent. Their sweet, fragile, soft-spoken mother was no match for three tow-headed adorable savages. Shraga entered their lives. Being a grade school teacher carries with it many responsibilities. They don't include making wake up calls to be sure that the kids actually got out of bed on Jerusalem's cold mornings, or calling at night to ask them whether they were in pajamas and had brushed their teeth. This was just part of Shraga's daily ritual.

Two weeks ago Mrs. Heilbrun was killed in a tragic car accident that also took the life of her youngest son. Shraga dropped everything and has hardly left the other boys' sides. If he were asked how much time he needs to get them through this, the minimum would include seeing them through adulthood. He was made for this and he is wise enough to grab the opportunity and run.

You don't need to think too deeply to realize how enduring his influence on the boys will be. It will affect their entire lives. What is less clear to those of us who don't look beyond the surface is that the affect on the young teacher is no less real and enduring. He discovered the heroic, compassionate, and transcendent part of himself that easily could have remained hidden even to his own eye had he failed himself at this time by taking refuge in complacency.

Why Are We Here?

We were all here for something. The neighbor who is here to open her house to anyone who needs a meal for any Shabbos of the year, the friend who is here to love his son despite the disappointment of having a child who rejects everything that he holds to be sacred, the colleague who is here to use her words to bring a smile to those who need a lift. These are people who know what they are here for, and live with the sense of purpose and fulfillment that so many of us find elusive.

In order to find our way in this world, we must stay clear of the major pitfalls that make it almost impossible to actualize ourselves.

Learn to hear your voice, not your parents. We may confuse what we need to do with what our parents (alive or dead) have made us think we must do to validate our lives. Although pleasing parents is an important part of being a good son or daughter, in the long run, living a meaningful life that you're passionate about will give your parents the ultimate happiness.

Reaching your potential takes ongoing effort. We admire people who work hard to make things happen. For some, the investment involves things that we just don't have. They give their talents, their charisma or their money. When we look further, we see that there are others who invest their most prized possession, their very essence. This is far more significant and precious than their resources We must never lose sight of the fact that the means for self-actualization are within our grasp. What we have is far less important than what we are.

Don't be afraid of failure. We fail and try again. We give it one more chance, this time with all of the passion and energy we can muster. Guess what? We fail again. When this pattern repeats itself enough times, we stop trying. When we hear about other people's spiritual journeys, we rarely hear about all of the stops along the way. Painful detours are opportunities for growth, and they are inevitable. Eventually, even a long and winding path will get us where we need to go, but only if we stick to it.

Clarity and focus. I envision myself having a conversation with an angel, an accuser, a life saver... The angel of death appears to me in a dream.

"I've come for you Tziporah," he says gently.

"No! Not now, I'm not ready."

There is a moment of silence. He is being kind, giving me time to think about what I really want to do with the years, if I have them. The moment feels like eternity. "What is it that you still want to do, and how long will it take?" he persists.

The words finally tumble out... "Building. Guiding. Learning. The kids. Their kids. It would take years. Give me life! I'll use it."

I flinch when I imagine my older, married friend saying, "You mean I'll never move out of this tiny house? I'll die before I get out of the suburbs?"

Some dreams are hard to wake up from, but if we are persistent we can learn to recognize the wake-up call coming from within.

This is the first article in a series on personal growth and self-discovery.