In reporting her death, Mary Tyler Moore’s publicist wrote, “She turned the world on with her smile.”
What will they say about you?
Growing up watching her show, I always admired her spirit, spunk and upbeat attitude towards life. This afternoon, I gained a deeper appreciation of the power of Mary’s smile. It is one thing to smile when the world seems perfect and all is right. It is another thing to find a reason to smile when you stumble yet somehow find the strength to move onwards and upwards. Mary Tyler Moore was noted as saying, “You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you. Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.”
Over 25 years ago, I learned the meaning of being brave and learning how to smile again.
I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. More than twenty-five years ago, sitting in DeKalb General Hospital in Atlanta next to my mother as she lay in a coma, I sensed this would be my last time in her physical presence. For the first twenty years of my life, she taught me, cared for me, loved me, and motivated me. I couldn’t believe the reality we all faced. I felt the touch of her hand and offered her a kiss on the forehead. I looked at her, once so full of life and now barely holding on. I remember feeling such sadness and despair.
How could this have happened? How would we survive as a family? All I felt was the world caving in and a darkness enveloping me. I began to cry from the depths of my heart. The January day was cloudy and cold, as if the world mourned with me. I struggled to find an anchor, some ray of hope, some way to be able to move forward. My universe was upside down. My mother had died, and although I was surrounded by family and friends, I felt all alone.
In retrospect, I understand now that those days were a crucible of my faith. As a young boy, I believed in a higher power but was never before challenged to muster such strength. To this day, I remember making a choice: I could either believe my mother’s untimely death was an accident and reject God or I could choose, in humility, to accept a higher plan and harness all of my inner strength, the resources of my faith, to carry mother with me in soul and spirit, and grow from this dark time in my life. I chose life and renewed my faith. I learned how to smile again.
As a rabbi, father, husband, teacher, and friend, I realize that every day I’m faced with a choice to sit in the darkness or light a fire. We all are. My crises may no longer, thank God, be existential, but we all choose between despair and hope, regret or resolve, stagnation or growth.
Just as God proclaimed “Let there be light” in the midst of chaos and darkness at the beginning of time, we must confront moments of personal chaos, darkness, and spiritual stagnation and choose to instill our lives with clarity and light. We’re tasked with the mission to find faith and see the light, and to pass the light to others. You’re alive today for a purpose. Don’t lament days lost but seize the moment now to make the best of today.
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I credit my mother and father with instilling within me a can-do approach to life and the value of positive thinking. I learned not only from their words but their deeds as well. As parents, our children learn from how we respond to setbacks. Do we blame others for our disappointments or as my father always says, “When one door closes, another door opens.” My mother’s motto, when asked how she was doing no matter the chaos in the house—“Thank God, I am fantastic!”—lifted my spirits and buoys me up to this day.
I’ve also discovered that when you offer positive words to someone else, when you give someone a needed emotional boost, you yourself are uplifted. People will often ask me how I’m able, as a rabbi, to give people comfort in times of grief and tragedy. They ask, “Isn’t it emotionally draining? What do you say when you walk into a house of sorrow? How do you comfort the bereaved?” I know that I can’t provide answers to why something has happened, but I can provide strength and hope. From my heart, I share that God will give them strength and that I and others are there for them. Just being present, sharing a kind word, and praying with them in turn renews my strength. As Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, “For it is in giving that we receive.”
When we only see life’s problems, we never realize the infinite possibilities latent in each day and hour. There is a divine design to every second of the day. There is a higher power. No diversion is without merit and meaning. If you meet someone, there is a holy purpose in the encounter. If you experience a closed door and a lost opportunity, know that you’re being pushed to find another opening in your life that you never thought possible.
The concept is radical but it will change your life forever. No moment is for naught; no encounter is random. When you find yourself seemingly off your projected path, rather than mourn, find meaning. In memory of Mary Tyler Moore, turn on the world with your smile. This is her legacy and can be yours as well.