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Review Harold Kushner's "Overcoming Life's Disappointments" by Tom Carrico

“Overcoming Life’s Disappointments”
By Harold S. Kushner

Reviewed by Tom Carrico

At first glance, a book named “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” does not look too appealing. Why not read “Enjoying Lousy Restaurant Food” or “Vacationing in Crummy Places”? I actually jumped at the opportunity to read this book, however, even buying it in hardcover and not waiting for the paperback. “Why?” you ask? Well, because I have read, enjoyed , reread and learned a lot from Rabbi Kushner’s many previous books, including “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” and “Living a Life That Matters”. This book is no different from the author’s previous offerings: it is full of profound wisdom and words to live by.

The author uses the life of Moses as revealed in the first five books of the Bible to help the reader understand many of life’s disturbing mysteries and vagaries. He starts by relating the story of Moses returning from the mountaintop with the ten commandments only to find his people worshiping a false idol. The author speaks of Moses dropping the original tablets which shattered into many pieces. He writes further: “(Moses’) dream of forging a nation of former slaves into a people who would unhesitatingly follow God’s laws has been shattered. But he holds on to the broken pieces of the dream, to remind himself of what he once dreamed of doing and to remind himself of the lessons he learned when he found out that his dream would not be realized.” Through this experience Moses learns of the ingratitude of the very people whom he is trying to help. (Does this remind anyone else of non-compliant or litigious patients?)

Later on Rabbi Kushner relates the stories of Moses’ many “comebacks” or fresh starts after setbacks. He opines: “It may be that instead of giving us a friendly world that would never challenge us and therefore never make us strong, God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resiliency.” How profound is that?

The author then goes into a discussion of our world’s current state of secularism, describing it as “a life without sacrifice.” Moses’ experience teaches us to view secularism through an understanding of the human spirit: the conflicting pulls of selfishness and generosity and the potential energy hidden in every human soul. There is another excellent chapter on “humility”. The author encourages us to understand that we can’t do it all on our own, that we are one of many people striving to achieve the same goals. Using the example of the life of Moses again, the author states: “Moses realized that he was not God. He was one of God’s many servants. If he could not do everything God wanted done, the rest would be done by another one of God’s servants at another time and place. That realization may be hard for our ego to accept, but ultimately it will be better for our soul.” Again, how simple yet so overwhelmingly profound!

In a chapter entitled “The Mistakes Good People Make” there is a discussion of what constitutes a complete or “fully lived life”. The five elements identified by Rabbi Kushner and illuminated by examples from Moses’ life include: family, friends, faith, work, and the satisfaction of making a difference. By faith, he admits that this may not be a “brand name” religion, but, rather, a way of thinking and making sense of the world and our place in it. This should “help us to understand the bad things that happen to us without our giving in to despair, and having reason to believe that tomorrow can be better than today.”

He concludes the book with a chapter entitled “How to Write Yourself a Happy Ending” which includes this challenge: “Ask too little of life and you run the risk of coming to the end of your days never having tasted many of the pleasures God put on earth for you. Ask too much of life and you virtually guarantee heartbreak, disappointment, and the risk of thinking of yourself as a failure.” This short but eloquent book certainly gives the reader much to ponder in terms with how to face that conundrum.

“Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner is available in hardcover from Knopf publishers.
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