On a glorious springtime visit to San Francisco — where the “if it feels good do it” culture is reflected in the bumper sticker “Your body may be a temple, but mine’s an amusement park” — I was struck by the tattooing trend, as if body art is the modern version of big shoulder pads or miniskirts, not a sign of rebellion. Personally, I prefer art on a canvas, not a human chest, though in healthy societies, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Then I encountered a scantily clad, tattoo-festooned woman on whose neck and jaw was emblazoned the ultimate gotcha question: “Who are you to judge?” Disarmed and unnerved by her determination to discredit judgmental passers-by, and before I could Think Again, I felt shame. After all, what compassionate, well-meaning person could answer her question without seeming prejudicial? Don’t we judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin — even when it’s multi-variegated dragons or flowers?
Like the branding on her skin, this encounter, though fleeting, stuck with me. Whether wearing a scornful signpost to the world actually makes her feel good, it made me feel bad. Was this her intention? Why provoke defensiveness and discord in a world that suffers from too much already? Wouldn’t she be happier if passers-by smiled rather than recoiled, and wouldn’t more smiling passers-by make the world a better place?
In his book “Living a Life That Matters,” Rabbi Harold Kushner offers answers: “Because we find ourselves in so many settings that proclaim our insignificance, … some people do desperate things to reassure themselves that they matter to the world.” As if anticipating Miley Cyrus’ recent unseemly televised antics, Kushner wrote, attention-seekers “confuse notoriety with celebrity, and celebrity with importance. ... They may come across as pitiable … but their story holds the attention of millions of Americans. They matter.”
But what kind of epitaph is “She desperately wanted to matter”? Wouldn’t a better tombstone read, “She did the right thing even when no one was looking?”
One needn’t be the Dalai Lama to know that every day, in seemingly insignificant ways, we can promote goodness, compassion and peace and help repair the world. “And if you can’t help (others),” the Dalai Lama did say, “at least don’t hurt them.”
Holocaust survivor and celebrated psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote this advice in his memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
In the camps, Frankl found meaning by clinging to his beloved wife’s image; finding decency, even in German guards; and helping comrades persevere, confirming Friedrich Nietzsche’s insight that “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
After selling millions of books, and aware its popularity was “an expression of the misery of our time,” Frankl offered this counsel in the 1992 edition: “Happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
It’s a shame it often takes a traumatic experience to uncover these truths. Mine happened this summer after being diagnosed with breast cancer, which is the reason for the brief hiatus from this column. Cancer is a great equalizer since it knows no prejudice as to whom it afflicts and, at first, the afflicted know only disappointment, uncertainty and fear.
Yet being vulnerable opens one’s heart to generosity and consolation and to random acts of kindness performed by compassionate strangers: the MRI-technician who mercifully held my hand and wiped my tears, the friends who put aside their concerns to help divert me from mine, the cancer survivors who inspired me to see hope, the doctors whose patience with my questions comforted me, and the family members who supported me through it all.
After a harrowing few weeks, and a good pathology report, I took a previously planned trip to Israel, where I stood at the Western Wall — the holiest place in Judaism — not to ask anything of God but to thank God for my many blessings. And as I welcomed the new year on Rosh Hashanah, I felt a heavenly jolt when I recited the Shehecheyanu blessing, which thanks God for sustaining and bringing us to this moment.
What makes us matter in a world where we often can feel insignificant is not how we brand ourselves as individuals — it’s the mark we stamp on others’ hearts and the legacy we leave the world. As the ancient Talmud teaches, “a good person, even in death, is still alive.”
Think Again — rather than “If it feels good, do it,” wouldn’t a better life creed be “If it makes others feel good, do it?”
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.