I Came In

We have a custom around here that a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can ask me to give a sermon at their ceremony on a subject of their interest. Usually, this means that I have to read a young adult book or watch a current popular show. A recent Bat Mitzvah, Sadie Meltzer asked me to deal with one of the most serious subjects there is, dealing with bad things you have no control over.

It’s a subject I think about every day, because every day, I talk to people who are dealing with something terrible, the death of a loved one, a sudden sickness, an injury. I’ll use the word “trauma” to group all the bad things together, all the tough challenges that we face. We not only have to deal with sudden events, but also the significant sources of stress such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace or financial stress. I use the word trauma because to the person involved, these can all be terrible, seemingly insurmountable events. How do we deal with the traumas of our lives?

This is a huge subject, but if I had to sum up everything I’ve seen in one word, the word would be “resilience.” The best thing I ever read on resilience is a book called Resilience:
The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. It’s by two psychiatrists, Drs. Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney. They say that in the physical sciences, materials and objects are called resilient if they resume their original shape after being bent or stretched. In people, resilience refers to the ability to bounce back after encountering difficulty. It is the process of adapting well in the face of
adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and even death.

Resilient individuals are like twigs with a fresh, green living core. When twisted out of shape, such a twig bends, but it does not break; instead, it springs back and continues growing.

Resilience is about understanding the difference between what happens to you and what you do.

Things happen to you that you have no control over, but there are still a lot of things that you do have control over. For all the things that happen to you, you still have a lot of freedom.

You are free to give in to your fears, or to face your fears.

You can avoid problems, or you can try to solve them.

You can learn from your failures, or you can repeat the same mistakes.

You can try to do everything by yourself, or you can let the people in your life help you and support you.

You have the ability to bend like a tree in a storm but not break.

You have the freedom to keep your body in the best physical shape you can, through exercise and eating right and sleeping right, or you can abuse your body and lose control over your very self.

Have you ever been to the Special Olympics? The Special Olympics is a competitive athletic program for those with intellectual disabilities. These are amazing events. You see hundreds of smiling faces, and everyone tries so hard and no one holds back.

At one event, there was a contestant. He was a small teenager who wore a metal brace on his right leg. He was wearing a gold-and-blue uniform. He hobbled to the starting line with six other contestants. He was eager to compete. He was driven to push himself to the limit. And here he was, competing with six other contestants who were not wearing leg braces. People who were watching were thinking: how could he have the strength and coordination to compete in the 100-yard race?

When the starting pistol fired, everyone began to shout and cheer: the crowd, the parents, the coaches, the contestants.

A tall, lean red-headed girl came in first, followed by a short muscular boy with Down syndrome. As the others finished one by one, the young man with the leg brace was far behind in the pack. And his neurologic disorder made his body movements appear spastic and irregular. He swerved from right to left and left to right as he slowly made his way down the track.

Eventually, the young man joined the other runners at the finish line. His coach immediately shook his hand and patted him on the shoulder for a job well done.

But then one of the other contestants, a teenage girl, approached the young man and in a loud voice said, “You came in last.”

“Tha, tha, that’s ok,” he stuttered, as he faced the girl and looked her in the eye. “I came in.”

That kid is my hero.

He knows more than a lot of us. Every day, he faces challenges that must seem insurmountable. He didn’t do anything wrong; life threw huge challenges at him from the moment he was born.

We all deal with traumas, some of which are events, some of which are continuing problems that we have to face every day.

There’s a lot in life that you cannot control.

But there is a lot in life that you can control, and that’s what you have to focus on.

What that young man is saying to us is that you may not be the fastest or the strongest, but you can develop the talents you have, you can put forth your best effort, and you can commit yourself to a life of purpose, growth and resilience.

What counts is that we come in.

Rabbi Scolnic

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