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Jewish World Review June 8, 2000 /5 Sivan, 5760

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Real happiness found in struggles of everyday life

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- RECENTLY, a gracious pro-family association invited me to Arizona to speak about the importance of the family at its annual conference. (As a rule, I choose to travel very infrequently because my family is so important to me.) However, I accepted this invitation because it was an opportunity to raise funds for abused and neglected children through the Dr. Laura Schlessinger Foundation, as well as for the Center for Arizona Policy.

The event was a great success, despite a few protesters angry about my religious views on marriage and the family. On the plane home, a fellow seated behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked, "Are you Dr. Laura?"

"Yup."

"Don't you ever get down about all the stories you hear and how much stuff is going on out there?"

I replied with an emphatic "no." I'm asked this question all the time. I guess a lot of people assume that I must be burdened by the glut of bad press I've received lately. Well, I'm not.

It took me some time to get to this place of equanimity, but I have learned that fertilizer enables you to grow incredible foliage and petals and flowers and things. It is all in how you look at it. For example, every time I talk with callers on the air about something they're struggling with, 18 million people hear something that could be meaningful in their lives -- something they can use positively. So out of one person's pain, something positive can happen for lots of other people. That's how I look at it.

Illustrating this philosophy so eloquently is a letter I received last week from one of my listeners. His wife is afflicted with ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. She is now severely debilitated and confined to a wheelchair. She cannot hold up her head or communicate verbally.

He writes: "She has currently lost about 95 percent of the use in her arms and about 85 percent of the use of her legs. There is nothing that can be done to improve her quality of life. Over the next year she will continue to deteriorate and will eventually pass away. She will leave behind a husband and two sons who love her very much. Since she has contracted this disease, almost all of her friends and other family have disappeared. The excuse most often heard is, 'I want to remember her the way she was.' Truth be known, that was the way I used to behave. It was easier to remember people the way they were rather than face my own mortality. Caring for my wife for the last two years has changed my attitude."

(Imagine what it's also doing for his kids -- the compassionate humility it's breeding in them.)

He goes on: "I have seen friends avoid us when I am wheeling my wife around the mall. When we do encounter people, they avoid looking at her. It is obvious that they cannot wait to get away from this uncomfortable situation. Every once in a while, though, someone will stoop down to look at her face and talk to her. When this happens, the transformation is miraculous. She gets the most wondrous smile on her face and her eyes light up like a Christmas tree.

"Seeing how my wife responds to the kindness and attention of others reminds me to take a little time, stop and say hello to friends and family or anyone who is ill or dying. It's hard enough to die without doing it alone. ... Is it more important to 'remember people the way they were,' or have God 'remember us the way we are?'"

Is this letter a downer or an upper? In my Arizona presentation, I was trying to describe the difference between happiness and pleasure. I spoke of pleasure as someone winning the lottery and screaming with delight because of all the things the money will buy. You may be excited and relieved that you have a lot of dough, but it won't buy happiness. I said that real happiness shows up not in a squeal of delight, but as a lump in your throat -- that "supremely proud of your kid" happiness, or the contentment that swells in your heart when your kid says, "Love you, Mom, love you, Dad," out of the clear blue in front of his buddies. It chokes you up. That's real happiness. It comes from things that have more depth and more meaning than a lucky break.

At the end of my presentation, one person posed this question, "If G-d is so perfect, why do people have so many problems?" Well, G-d is perfect, but we aren't, and we are the cause of most of our problems. We have the ability to elevate ourselves and do magnificent things, or to degrade ourselves and do degrading things. G-d clarifies what's right from what's wrong. Ultimately, we have the freedom to choose.

We are given an imperfect existence with imperfect impulses, feelings, emotions and desires. G-d gave us the law and the option to choose to follow it, despite heavy burdens and challenges.

So was that letter depressing? No. Because the people in this family know "happiness" on a level other families can only dream about. Their happiness comes from honoring their obligation to the wife who gave her husband children and to the mother who gave her children life.

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