03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Finding The Courage To Be Grateful

It's one thing to know what to do; it's another thing to be able to do it. We know we are supposed to be grateful for all of life's blessings. We know that when hardship or tragedy strikes, we're supposed to keep our chins up and try to transform tragedy into action - turn negatives into positives, move forward no matter what, and so on.

But over the past few weeks, it dawned on me that gratitude is a lot easier said than done. We can talk about this virtue and easily buy into it, but when reality strikes, it's another story.

This hit home the other night at a memorial service for a 3-year-old girl who was run over by a school bus in Jerusalem. The girl's extended family in Los Angeles, close friends of mine, asked me to say a few words. I had no idea what to say. I got up in front of 300 people and told them exactly that: I have no clue what to say.

I was in no mood to "spin" the situation and hand over the clichés of transformation and gratitude. Sure, there are always blessings to be thankful for, but how can anything alleviate such a singular and unspeakable loss?

A few nights later, I attended a fundraiser at A Cow Jumped Over the Moon, a kosher restaurant and music club on Rodeo Drive, for the manager, Sacha Chalom Louza, who recently underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. Louza is a Sephardic Jew who prays at the Chabad of South La Cienega (known as SOLA), and his friends in the community are raising money to help cover his living expenses while he undergoes treatment.

At the fundraiser, the SOLA rabbi got up and spoke powerfully about the Jewish way of reacting to tragedy and hardships. He mentioned the worldwide efforts to commemorate the murders a year ago of the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and how Chabad was aiming to transform that atrocity into a positive force for the world. Yet as he spoke, I couldn't help thinking about the parents of the murdered couple and wondering what kind of "transformation" or "gratitude" could possibly alleviate their loss.

A third event also made me think about the difficulty of gratitude. A couple of weeks ago, our family hosted about 40 special needs kids, along with teenage volunteers and some parents, for a Friday night meal. They were all part of Etta Israel, a local organization that helps kids with Down syndrome, autism and other special needs.

At the end of the evening, as we were all saying our goodbyes, one of the more severely disabled kids kept making a "phone me" sign toward me. He wanted me to call him and stay in touch. As I looked at his forlorn face, again I thought: What does this kid have to be thankful for?

As things would have it, something did happen that night that helped me see things in a broader light. By some divine coincidence, the grandfather of the 3-year-old girl killed in Jerusalem was in my neighborhood that Shabbat, and he ended up joining us for the Friday night meal. Knowing that he was in deep mourning, I was uncomfortable at first. But then he told me the story of how the Lubavitcher Rebbe, while mourning his beloved wife, was able to "switch off" his grief during Shabbat because the mitzvah of joy transcended everything.

Well, my friend was able to emulate his Rebbe. Surrounded by the loud and happy Etta Israel kids, he switched from his state of mourning to a state of Shabbat joy. As I watched him sing and tell stories of the biblical patriarchs, I saw a transformation that came not from a self-help cliché, but from the story of a 5,000-year-old tradition.

It struck me that perhaps this idea of having our own story is itself transformational.

Just like we can draw strength from the master story of the Jewish people, we each have our own stories that we can nurture and shape and draw strength from. As Rabbi Naomi Levy told me a few days ago, while talking about a new book she is writing, some of these stories are more difficult or tragic than others, some are easier, but for better or for worse they are our stories - the stories that we are called upon to make our own.

As we live out these stories, we make choices. We can choose to rally a community and help a friend with a brain tumor; we can choose to give a few hours of joy to a group of kids with special needs; and we can learn to appreciate the gifts of our tradition, which include a day of the week that can transcend the deepest grief.

Maybe, then, this is the blessing that we have to be most grateful for: the very idea that we each have a story we can call our own, and that we have the power to shape and influence that story - even if we can never write its ending.