Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success

Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success

by Harold S. Kushner


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From the celebrated author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a profound and practical book about doing well by doing good.

For decades now, from the pulpit and through his writing, Harold Kushner has been helping people navigate the rough patches of life: loss, guilt, crises of faith. Now, in this compelling new work, he ad-dresses an equally important issue: our craving for significance, the need to know that our lives and our choices mean something.
We sometimes do great things, and sometimes terrible things, to reassure ourselves that we matter to the world. We sometimes confuse fame, power, and wealth with true achievement. But finally we need to think of ourselves as good people, and we are troubled when we compromise our integrity in the pursuit of what we think of as success.

Harold Kushner tells us that the path to a truly successful and significant life is through friendship, through family, and through acts of generosity and self-sacrifice. He describes how, in affecting the life of even one person in a positive way, we make a difference in the world, and prove that we do in fact matter.
Persuasive and sympathetic, anecdotal and commonsensical, Living a Life That Matters inspires and uplifts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375410635
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/2001
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.99(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Harold S. Kushner is Rabbi Laureate of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts, where he lives. His books include When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Who Needs God, and How Good Do We Have to Be?

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Chapter 1

The Two Voices of God Like many people, I live in two worlds. Much of the time, I live in the world of work and commerce, eating, working, and paying my bills. It is a world that honors people for being attractive and productive. It reveres winners and scorns losers, as reflected in its treatment of devoted public servants who lose an election or in the billboard displayed at the Atlanta Olympic Games a few years ago: "You don't win the silver medal, you lose the gold." As in most contests, there are many more losers than winners, so most of the citizens of that world spend a lot of time worrying that they don't measure up.

But, fortunately, there is another world where, even before I entered it professionally, I have spent some of my time. As a religiously committed person, I live in the world of faith, the world of the spirit. Its heroes are models of compassion rather than competition. In that world, you win through sacrifice and self-restraint. You win by helping your neighbor and sharing with him rather than by finding his weakness and defeating him. And in the world of the spirit, there are many more winners than losers.

When I was young, most of my time and energy were devoted to the world of getting and spending. I relished competition. I wanted to be challenged. How else could I find out how good I was, where I stood on the ladder of winners and losers? I was living out the insight of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung that "act one of a young man's life is the story of his setting out to conquer the world."

Of course, I was not the only person who did that. Most people lived as I did. For several years, our next-door neighbor's son was a nationally renowned professional athlete. It wasn't money that kept him playing and risking serious injury. It was the challenge, the competition, the opportunity to prove once again that he was better than most people at what he did.

When I was young, I saw that second world, the world of faith, as a kind of vacation home, a place to which I repaired in order to relax from the stress of the world of striving, so that I could emerge refreshed to resume the battle. At times, it seemed almost a mirror image of my first world, a place where different people played by different rules. Old people were respected there for their wisdom and experience, as were old ideas and old values. People were described as "beautiful" because they exuded compassion and generosity rather than wealth and glamour. "Success" had a very different meaning there.

As my life increasingly became a story of giving up dreams and coming to terms with my limitations (Jung went on to say, "Act two is the story of a young man realizing that the world is not about to be conquered by the likes of him"), I found myself returning more and more to that second, alternative world. I would often recall the words of my teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel: "When I was young, I admired clever people. As I grew old, I came to admire kind people."

Looking back at my life, I realize that I was commuting between those two worlds in an effort to meet two basic human needs, the need to feel successful and important and the need to think of myself as a good person, someone who deserved the approval of other good people.

We need to know that we matter to the world, that the world takes us seriously. I read a memoir recently in which a woman recalls staying home from school one day as a child because she was sick. Hearing the noises of the world outside her window, she was dismayed to realize that the world was going on without her, not even missing her. The woman grew up to be devoutly religious, a pillar of her church, active in many organizations, picketing abortion clinics, feeding the hungry. As I read her story, I wondered if she became an activist to overcome that childhood fear of insignificance, to reassure herself that she did make a difference to the world.

In my forty years as a rabbi, I have tended to many people in the last moments of their lives. Most of them were not afraid of dying. Some were old and felt that they had lived long, satisfying lives. Others were so sick and in such pain that only death would release them. The people who had the most trouble with death were those who felt that they had never done anything worthwhile in their lives, and if God would only give them another two or three years, maybe they would finally get it right. It was not death that frightened them; it was insignificance, the fear that they would die and leave no mark on the world.

The need to feel important drives people to place enormous value on such symbols as titles, corner offices, and first-class travel. It causes us to feel excessively pleased when someone important recognizes us, and to feel hurt when our doctor or pastor passes us on the street without saying hello, or when a neighbor calls us by our sister's or brother's name. The need to know that we are making a difference motivates doctors and medical researchers to spend hours looking through microscopes in the hope of finding cures for diseases. It drives inventors and entrepreneurs to stay up nights trying to find a better way of providing people with something they need. It causes artists, novelists, and composers to try to add to the store of beauty in the world by finding just the right color, the right word, the right note. And it leads ordinary people to buy six copies of the local paper because it has their name or picture in it.

Because we find ourselves in so many settings that proclaim our insignificance--in stores where salespeople don't know our name and don't care to know it, in crowded buses and airplanes that give us the message that if we weren't there someone else would be available to take our place--some people do desperate things to reassure themselves that they matter to the world. I can believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and that John Hinckley, Jr., tried to kill President Reagan in large measure to prove that the world was wrong in not taking them seriously. They had the power to change history. At a less crucial level, there are people who confuse notoriety with celebrity, and celebrity with importance. They go to extreme lengths to get their names in the Guinness Book of Records, or to appear on daytime television shows, revealing things about themselves and their families that most of us would be embarrassed to reveal to our clergyman or our closest friends. They may come across as pitiable; the audience may scorn them. But for one hour their story holds the attention of millions of Americans. They matter.

At the same time, we need to be assured that we are good people. A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled How Good Do We Have to Be? Its basic message was that God does not expect perfection from us, so we should not demand perfection of ourselves or those around us, for God knows what a complicated story a human life is and loves us despite our inevitable lapses. As I traveled around the country talking about my book, something interesting kept happening. Although most people in my audience welcomed the message that God loved them despite their mistakes and failings, in every audience there would be a significant number of people who were uncomfortable with it. They wanted to believe that God loved them, and other people loved them, because they deserved it, not because God and the other people in their lives were gracious enough to put up with them. They wanted to believe that God cared about the choices they made every day, choosing between selfishness and generosity, between honesty and deceitfulness, and that the world became a better place when they made the right choices. They were like the college student who hands in a paper and wants the professor to read it carefully and critically, because he or she has worked so hard to make it good. The people in my audience felt that they had worked hard to lead moral lives. They might hope that God would make allowances for human frailty, but, like the college student, they would be sorely disappointed by the response, That's all right, I really didn't expect much from you anyway.

My answer to them when they challenged me was that I believe God speaks to us in two voices.

One is the stern, commanding voice issuing from the mountaintop, thundering "Thou shalt not!," summoning us to be more, to reach higher, to demand greater things of ourselves, forbidding us to use the excuse "I'm only human," because to be human is a wondrous thing.

God's other voice is the voice of compassion and forgiveness, an embracing, cleansing voice, assuring us that when we have aimed high and fallen short we are still loved. God understands that when we give in to temptation it is a temporary lapse and does not reflect our true character.

Some years ago, Erich Fromm wrote a little book entitled The Art of Loving, in which he distinguished between what he called "mother love" and "father love" (emphasizing that people of either gender are capable of both kinds of love). Mother love says: You are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, and I will always love you no matter what. Nothing you ever do or fail to do will make me stop loving you. Father love says: I will love you if you earn my love and respect, if you get good grades, if you make the team, if you get into a good college, earn a good salary.

Fromm insists that every one of us needs to experience both kinds of loving. It may seem at first glance that mother love is good, warm, and freely given, father love harsh and conditional (I will only love you if . . .). But as my audiences taught me, and as a moment's reflection might teach us all, sometimes we want to hear the father's message that we are loved because we deserve it, not only because the other person is so generous and tolerant.

People need to hear the same message from God that children need to hear from their earthly parents. Just as it is an unforgettably comforting and necessary experience for a child caught doing something wrong to be forgiven and to learn that parental love is a gift that will not be arbitrarily withdrawn, a lesson no child should grow up without absorbing, so is it a vital part of everyone's religious upbringing to learn that God's love is not tentative, that our failures do not alienate us from God. That is why Roman Catholic churches offer the sacrament of confession and penance, why Protestant liturgy emphasizes that the church is a home for imperfect people, and why Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for our sins, is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

When we are feeling burdened by guilt, when we know that we have done wrong and hate ourselves for it, we need to hear the voice of God-as-mother, assuring us that nothing can alienate us from God's love. But when we have worked hard to be good, honest, generous people, there is something lacking in the message, I love you despite yourself because I am so loving and lenient. What is missing is the voice of God-as-father: You're good, you have earned My love.

I can't tell you how many men and women I have counseled who spent their entire adult lives feeling somehow incomplete and unsure of their worth because they never heard their father tell them, You're good and I love you for it. I once paid a condolence call on a man in my congregation whose father had just died. The funeral and memorial week had taken place in another city, where his parents had lived, and I was the only visitor on his first night home. After several minutes of asking about the funeral and how his mother was coping, I found myself saying, "It sounds like your father was a man who kept his emotions to himself."

The congregant broke down and started to cry. "He never said anything good about me. All my life, I wanted to hear him say he was proud of me for who I was and what I was doing, and all I ever got from him was this sense that he showed his love by putting up with me." He wiped his eyes, apologized for the tears, and went on. "In my head, I know that he had a problem talking about his feelings. In my head, I know he thought his way was the right way to make me do better. But in my heart, I feel so cheated. I always got good grades in school, never got into trouble, went to a good college. I make a good living, live in a nice home, have a wonderful family. Would it have been so hard for him just once to tell me that he was proud of me? And now he's dead and I'll never hear it!"

I tried to tell him that the problem was his father's, not his, that his father was part of an older generation of men who had trouble knowing what they were feeling, let alone putting it into words. I reminded him that his father had grown up in the 1930s, during the hard years of the Depression, and had probably been forced by circumstance to grow a hard outer shell over his sensitive inner core, because sensitive, caring people were often left behind in those years. I prompted him to remember all the nonverbal ways in which his father had shown love and concern for him. But I don't know how much that helped. My congregant may be a permanent member of that army of men and women who will always feel a little bit incomplete because they never got the message of father love--I love you for what you have made of yourself--and will keep on working and struggling until someone they care about tells them that.

People need to hear the message that they are good. And people who are not entirely sure of their goodness may need that validation even more. That may be why churches and synagogues attract people who are bothered by the lapses in their behavior as husbands and wives, as parents, and as children of aging parents, and crave the reassurance that they are welcome in God's house. That may be why a wealthy businessman cherishes a twenty-five-dollar plaque given him by his church, synagogue, or lodge for being honored as Man of the Year. It may explain why we do things that don't benefit us economically but benefit us psychologically, giving charity, volunteering for good causes. We do them to nourish our self-image as generous, caring people. I have met many people who joined the local Rotary Club or Young Presidents Organization to make useful contacts, but stayed and became active because they came to enjoy the feeling of making their community a better place. And it may be why we make excuses for the things we do that embarrass us. How do most of us handle our mistakes? We blame others, we blame our upbringing, we rationalize what we did, in an effort to reassure ourselves of our essential goodness. (Our rationalizations do seem aimed at ourselves; they rarely persuade anyone else.) In his book Three Seductive Ideas, Dr. Jerome Kagan, professor of psychology at Harvard, writes, "The desire to believe that the self is ethically worthy . . . is universal." He points out that children as young as two years old evaluate their behavior in terms of right and wrong and need to think of themselves as good. Without that innate moral sense, Kagan believes, children could not be socialized.

We tend to assume that people who violate the law in a serious way--violent criminals, gang members, bank robbers--are immoral people, people who don't care about society's rules or what others think of them. But a psychologist friend of mine who has spent time working with prisoners in a federal penitentiary learned something different. He told me that when he started he assumed that he would be dealing with hardened criminals, people who were indifferent to moral obligations and considerations of right and wrong. To his surprise, he learned that prison inmates hold to a very strict moral code. It may not be our moral code; it may not be a moral code we would find admirable or even acceptable. But in the prison setting, there is behavior for which you gain approval (not ratting on associates) and there is behavior that sinks you to the bottom of the moral pecking order (imprisonment for hurting women or children). Similarly, gang members may appear to us as having total disregard for moral considerations and public opinion, but within the gang, they will risk injury and hardship to live up to its rules. Apparently, even people on the fringes of society (or well beyond the fringe) cannot bear to think of themselves as bad people. They will insist on their innocence, they will blame the circumstances of their growing up, or they will defend the morality of what they do. In Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, Michael Corleone says of his father, Don Vito, "He operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal strictures of society."

We human beings are such complicated creatures. We have so many needs, so many emotional hungers, and they often come into conflict with each other. Our impulse to help needy people or support medical research conflicts with our desire to have the money to buy all the things we are attracted to. My commitment to doing the right thing impels me to want to apologize to people I have offended, but my desire to protect my image and nourish my sense of righteousness persuades me that the problem is their hypersensitivity, not my behavior. What happens when our need to think of ourselves as good people collides with our need to be recognized as important? Is it possible to do both? How often do we find ourselves betraying our values, violating our consciences, in our struggle to have an impact on the world? Political candidates compromise their values to raise funds and gain votes. Salesmen exaggerate the virtues of their wares. Doctors, lawyers, and businessmen neglect their families in the pursuit of professional and financial success. Often we don't like what we find ourselves doing (although it is remarkable how easily we get used to it after the first few times), but we tell ourselves we have no choice. That is the kind of world we live in, and that is the price we have to pay for claiming our space in it.

This may well be the central dilemma in the lives of many of us. We want--indeed, we need--to think of ourselves as good people, though from time to time we find ourselves doing things that make us doubt our goodness. We dream of leaving the world a better place for our having passed through it, though we often wonder whether, in our quest for significance, we litter the world with our mistakes more than we bless it with our accomplishments. Our souls are split, part of us reaching for goodness, part of us chasing fame and fortune and doing questionable things along the way, as we realize that those two paths may diverge sharply. Our self-image is like an out-of-focus photograph, two slightly blurred images instead of one clear one. Much of our lives, much of our energy will be devoted to closing that gap between the longings of our soul and the scoldings of our conscience, between our too-often conflicting needs for the assurance of knowing that we are good and the satisfaction of being told that we are important.

The people we find ourselves admiring most tend to be people who strike us as having closed that gap, having resolved that conflict. Many of the biographies we read, and especially the life story to which we will turn in the next chapter, are accounts of people struggling to reconcile those two longings, to be good and to matter. We examine their lives, not only to gain information but to gain insight as to how they managed to do that, in the hope that we too will be able to gain the two prizes for which our souls yearn.

Table of Contents

First Wordsvii
1The Two Voices of God3
2How to Win by Losing23
3What Kind of Person Do You Want to Be?49
4Wild Justice: The Seductive Pleasure of Getting Even85
5Shalom: The Quest for Integrity122
6Family and Friends: We Are Who We Love154
7Best Actor in a Supporting Role179
8Why We Matter to the World20

What People are Saying About This

Thomas Moore

Rabbi Kushner's new book is full of the great stories and subtle wisdom that makes him a genuine spiritual leader for us all in a time of considerable confusion. He blends limitless compassion with sharp analysis to offer a way toward integrity. This is a book you don't want to put down or allow to be too far from you in times of crisis. (Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul )

Mitch Albom

"Living a Life That Matters is a wonderful, much-needed primer on the truly important things in life. Many thanks to Harold Kushner for reminding us what we should never forget: that success is not in the bulk of your wallet, but in the weight of your character."
--author of Tuesdays with Morrie

Reading Group Guide


Page 5: Kushner quotes one of his teachers as saying, “When I was young, I admired clever people. As I grew old, I came to admire kind people.” How does that statement relate to the “two styles of morality” discussed on pages 20–21? Do you think most people go through a similar development? What does that say about what we would like to be admired for?

Page 9: “Mother love says: Nothing you ever do or fail to do will make me stop loving you. Father love says: I will love you if you earn my love and respect, if you get good grades, if you make the team. [The psychoanalyst and author Erich] Fromm insists that every one of us needs to experience both kinds of loving.” Do you agree with Fromm and Kushner that “father love” is good and necessary, or do you find it harsh and conditional? Do we need to experience both kinds of love to feel complete?


Pages 28–29: “At the end of the struggle, Jacob is injured and limping, but the Bible nonetheless describes him as shalem, a Hebrew word with connotations of wholeness, integrity, being at peace with oneself. . . . In a sense, Jacob has won by losing.” Can you think of other circumstances in which a person can win by losing? A conflict between husband and wife? Between parent and adolescent? Between neighbors? Between nations?

3. Chapter 3

Pages 51–55: Do you agree with Kushner’s assertion that we cannot be complete people and do good things without a strong streak of selfishness? Does that make you feel differently about selfish things you mighthave done?

Pages 56–57: How would you answer the questions Kushner put to his teenage students about stealing from a vending machine?

4. Chapter 4

Page 62: “I define revenge as punishment in the name of justice, tarnished by taking pleasure in hurting the person being punished.” In a subsequent interview, Kushner has refined the definition further: Justice is hurting someone who deserves to be hurt; revenge is hurting someone because it makes us feel better to hurt him. Do you agree with that definition, and if so, is revenge ever morally justifiable? What other ways of “making you feel better” might be alternatives to vengeance?

5. Chapter 5

Page 93: “How can you be sure that it is God’s voice and not your own wishful thinking? Of the many voices that echo in our minds, how do we recognize the authentic voice of God?” Over the course of centuries and in recent history, we have seen people do terrible things in the belief that they were carrying out the will of God. On what basis do we declare them tragically misguided while insisting that the voice we follow is God’s true message?

Pages 101–5: Is Isaac Bashevis Singer’s character Gimpel the Fool to be envied or pitied?

6. Chapter 6

Pages 116: What do you get out of friendship that you don’t find in family or work?

7. Chapter 7

Pages 139–40: “Communal standards and communal pressure, the combined force of good people banding together, will do more to curb wrong behavior than either sermons or threats of jail.” Do you agree? What are some of the ways in which a person’s character and values might be shaped by his or her living in one community rather than another? How does this apply to young people leaving for college?

8. Chapter 8

• Has Living a Life That Matters affected your perspective on life? How has this book encouraged you to see things differently? In one sentence, what would you like to be your personal legacy?

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