I was the only woman in an office filled with rabbis when the phone rang. Someone was calling. I picked up the phone.
At 23 years old, my job was to create inspiring programs for Jewish women on the Upper West Side (I was elated). The caller was female and would only speak to a woman. She sounded upset and I wanted to help. I’ve replayed that call many times in my mind over the last decade and know that the responsible thing to do would have been to ask someone older and wiser to call her back. Luckily, I was irresponsible.
Sarah was brought up in a religious home. She was a sweet little girl with her family and a good student in school. She was kind to others and had friends. As she got older, she volunteered in after school activities. She knew that she was a “good girl” and expected to have a good life in return for her efforts. Sadly, in her teenage years, she was exposed to an adult male character who was no good at all. Following high school, when she traveled to Israel for her gap year, she experienced another negative incident.
Sarah was a good girl and wanted a good life so she tried to shake off her unpleasant encounters. At 21, she was set up with a nice Jewish boy and married him. They had a few children and she tried to build her home and move on with her life. Despite her best efforts and what should have been a happy stage in her life, she felt trapped in her pain and sadness.
Why had God put her in a position to suffer? She was a good girl, after all.
Despite my youth, I knew to validate Sarah’s pain and listen. When she was finished, I told her what I was sure she already knew. Life is not meant to be a stroll in the park. We’re here to work. Life is full of pleasures and we should savor every one but we are meant to climb and develop, rung by rung, to reach the greatest heights we can reach. At times, those rungs come in the form of painful circumstances. We are made or broken by those circumstances.
She asked what happens if that’s not the kind of life she signed up for? It was not the life she wanted. She preferred to follow the rules and, in exchange, be granted shelter from sadness, anger, and pain. She came into this world with an expectation of an unspoken deal with her Creator. If she’s obedient, then she’s protected from heartache.
We spoke for a long time and ended up keeping in touch for years. I relate to Sarah in that we both share a false expectation. The human experience seems to be hard-wired with a cycle of process, milestone, and then process again. We think we have everything figured out and in that very moment of confidence, the rug is pulled out from underneath, leaving us disoriented and forced to adjust to a new reality. It often comes as a shock and just as often humbles us to our core. I would argue that the rug-pulling may be for the express purpose of jarring us from our feelings of security, confidence, and (perhaps) complacency.
So many examples come to mind.
- Dating- You work so hard to meet The One. When you do, no matter your education, a part of you is sure you’ll ride off into the distance together. Details for the ride are fuzzy. GPS not included.
- Parenting- You spend your childhood (just me?) sure you will be the best parent. Then you have a child and realize you are clueless and the most knowledgeable experts in the world have less insight than you do about your child. (Note: That shouldn’t stop us from consulting them).
- Personal Development- I finally figured out how to be a good person after years of study and practice only to realize that I’ve mastered an exceptionally narrow lane and I have miles to go.
- Reputation- After significant effort invested in community service or professional endeavors, I make a mistake or suffer a humiliation in the presence of others.
I’m really glossing over these big categories but you catch my gist.
Sometimes, nothing goes wrong but the things that were supposed to go right just never happen. We wake up and look at our lives through the eyes of our past selves. This is NOT what I signed up for.
If you’re reading this – or if you’re not reading this- you did NOT sign up for your life. You were supposed to have kids by now. You weren’t supposed to get divorced. You were supposed to have a great job that you love. You weren’t supposed to be this old. Your finances were supposed to be better. You weren’t supposed to suffer with physical pain or illness.
So what now?
Dear family, friends, and me: Our lives are not what we signed up for but they are exactly what we need. Your life is tailor-made for what you need right now. The big gaping holes and the terrible messes are by design. So what is life asking of you right now? What are you supposed to be doing?
Maybe you need to focus on healing. Maybe you need to focus on sharing. Perhaps more time doing and less time thinking (perhaps more time thinking and less time doing). Move faster. Invest more. Slow down. Be deliberate. Whatever circumstance you have in front of you, there is something important being asked of you. Someone is calling.
Pick up the phone.