Unsung heroes

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matt. 7:21).

This month I heard three stories that I had to share here. People like these, and countless others, are among the sweetest fruits of the Incarnation. I told a seminarian the other day that one of his gravest duties as a priest will be to notice the hidden greatness in such people, and encourage them.

The first story I was not able to get permission to recount, but it seemed general enough to share without compromising privacy. The second and third I did ask permission to share.

My wife met a man recently who is in his 70’s. He told her all about his wife. She has Parkinson’s and he cares for her at home. He said it’s a 24/7 commitment, but that’s “what I signed up for when I said ‘I do’”. He apologized to Patti after about 30 minutes of talking. “I’m sorry, I know you have to go. Thank you for listening.”

Early this month I met a woman who has a teenage son. Her boyfriend left her soon after the baby was born and since then she’s never married. “It’s been a hard 14 years. I came back to my faith soon after we broke up. Someone introduced me to Theology of the Body and I decided then to not have sex outside of marriage. To wait. But every man I have met since then has not wanted to wait, so here I am still single. I’m just like, really dude? But I won’t compromise. I trust God knows what He’s doing and my son is the most important thing in my life. I want him to see I am serious about my faith. Pray for me.”

Last week I spoke to a woman whose mother still lives alone in her house, but is at the point where she will no longer be able to remain independent. Her mom’s in her early 80’s. The woman said she is the only one of her siblings who still speaks to her mom, so she carries all the burden. She herself has a full time job and children both in college and still at home. Her mom is stubborn and does not express gratitude, but complains about everything. “I know it’s the dementia. She used to be sweet. But it’s hard to deal with every day. I struggle with anger and guilt. But I try not to show it to her. Mostly my husband has to listen to my frustration. Poor guy.” I told her I’d email her this quote from Jewish author Dennis Prager that I posted once before in this blog. She emailed me after receiving it: “What a relief that quote gives me. Thanks a bunch. Pray for me.”

Here’s the quote:

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than the $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

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