One of my favorite movies as I was growing was The Other Side of the Mountain, based on the non-fiction book A Long Way Up: The Story of Jill Kinmont by Evans G. Valens. In this inspirational and heartbreaking true story, Jill is a national championship skier who has a terrible skiing accident, leaving her a quadriplegic right before her 19th birthday. The movie followers her long road to emotional recovery, including her life-changing long-distance romance with Dick “Mad Dog” Buek, himself an exceptional skier and later a stunt daredevil.
Dick proposes marriage to Jill over the phone, and she promises to accept his proposal – but only if he does it in person. While flying his personal plane to ask Jill face-to-face, Dick fatally crashes into Donner Lake in California. In the movie, Jill’s voiceover gives us her outlook on how she comes to terms with yet another tragic loss in her life: “I remember the words that Dick Buek said to me the last time I saw him: "How lucky I am to have found someone and something that saying goodbye to is so damned awful."
Jill chose to see one of her darkest moment as a reminder that she had experienced great joy. Her worst of times reminded her of the best of times. She saw her loss of a loved one as a gift that she had experienced such love in the first place. I remember watching this part of the movie over and over again, weeping into my tissue, and wondering how anyone – especially someone who had experienced such a life of tragedy – could see the gift in the grief. Jill’s perspective seemed to align perfectly with these words of Midrash: “If you want life, expect pain.”
Personally, I think I would have a hard time seeing the blessing in the burden of losing the love of my life. Professionally, I can’t imagine suggesting to a client – or even a friend – that they see a glass half full in a desert of deep personal loss and despair. Nevertheless, over the years, I have worked with a few clients over the years who can tap into this perspective quite easily — it’s impressive to hear them describe the potential for refreshing lemonade they see in the sack of bitter lemons they’ve been left to hold.
With other clients, it’s clear to me that they want and need permission to experience the burden they’re bearing, with all if its sadness and disappointment. But I also have another group of clients whose current struggles are a direct outcome of them achieving a major life goal. These are not life-and-death issues – but achievements like making a long-awaited career change, finally finding a life partner, or even reaching a goal weight after years of ups and downs. When these clients hit a roadblock that shows up on the path between their “dream come true” and “now what?” my job is to remind them of their “Mazel Tov Moment” that got them here in the first place.
Like what? Like who?
Like my client Elizabeth had been dating for over twenty years when she finally met her bashert, Ed. They opted for a short engagement, and Elizabeth spent the four months she had given herself to plan her wedding running from vendor to vendor, and from store to story. One day, after she had spent ten hours looking for special shoes to go with her short, funky lavender wedding dress, she called me and yelled (to me, not at me): “This is crazy! How can I make a wedding in four months? What was I thinking?”
“Mazel tov!” I answered.
“Save it for the wedding. If there IS a wedding.” Elizabeth growled.
“No, I mean think about why you have this problem.”
“Because I have a wedding date that’s too soon and I have a dress that’s too weird!”
“Yes,” I acknowledged. “And also because you have found the man you’re meant to be with – and you’re getting to marry him.”
Elizabeth, who was rarely at a loss for words, was quiet for so long that I asked if she was still on the phone. “Yes, I’m here. You’re right. I forgot about why I am even in this “spin” to begin with.”
“It doesn’t matter who’s right. What matters is you being clear about what’s at the root of all of this. What can you say to remind yourself when you start to “spin”?
I heard Elizabeth breathe out slowly. “I will tell myself, “I get to be with Ed for the rest of my life. That’s permanent. Everything else is temporary insanity!”
I laughed. “I love it – “temporary insanity!”
For the first time in many weeks, Elizabeth laughed too.
Let me be clear: The “Mazel Tov Moment” conversation is not a denial of reality. The struggles, stresses and strains associated with finally realizing a major goal are as taxing as those that come along with the pursuit of the goal itself. The “Mazel Tov Moment” comes from saying “yes, and” rather than “but” in a given situation. It’s about acknowledging the current pressure as real and resulting from something good.
Compare and contrast:
· Elizabeth was getting married – but she was overwhelmed.
· Elizabeth was overwhelmed – and she was getting married.
Which one leans into the joy?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented, “Remember that life is a celebration – or can be a celebration. One of the most important things is to teach people how to celebrate.” Even when we wrestle with feeling overwhelmed or underprepared, we need to take a moment to celebrate what we’ve already accomplished that brought us to today’s skirmish. Yes, there will be also be another battle tomorrow – and how lucky we are to have found someone or something in life that is worth fighting the good fight.