My mother is a pretty amazing woman. While her official name is Sheila, since before she was born everyone has called her Happy.
And as the expression goes in Hebrew, k’shmah ken hi — she is true to her name. My mom has always been a font of positive energy.
In her professional life, she taught people how to make their meetings and leadership better through using humor. I know, cool job. And for me, well, she’s always been an enormous source of encouragement and inspiration.
My mom is 83 now, and about six years ago she called and asked if I had a minute. It was a Sunday morning and I was standing in the frozen aisle at the supermarket.
I told her, sure. Well, I have some news, she said. I have Alzheimer’s. Pause. And then: So next week I start speech therapy, and I’m excited for what I’m going to learn!
This is kind of the essence of my mother.
Ironically, as my mom’s mind slowly deteriorates, she has become, unintentionally, one of my great mindfulness teachers. She models gratitude, generosity, and acceptance.
We’ve actually fallen into a nice routine. About 6:45 or 7 am I can expect a call. “Good morning! So, what time is it at your house?” she’ll ask. And then, just about every day, she’ll say, “You know, I just feel so fortunate. I have this beautiful view out my room.”
Side note: I don’t think anyone else would say it’s particularly beautiful — but it doesn’t matter!
My mom models what the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” He wrote, quote, “Our goal should be to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
I see this a lot these days with my mom. When we go to a concert or a movie, or even just for a drive, I constantly hear her saying, “Wow!” At things I totally take for granted: That building over there — wow! The sky up there — wow! The light coming in the window — amazing! My mom may be Heschel’s best student.
I think about this idea of radical amazement in connection with a particular moment in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, which tells the story of when our matriarch, Rebecca, first met her husband-to-be, Isaac. After traveling on a long journey, the Torah says that Rebecca saw Isaac, “she fell off her camel.”
It’s not clear why exactly she fell off her camel, but I like to imagine that she was so struck at seeing him that she had this moment of “Wow!”
She was totally amazed — so amazed that she was knocked off balance for a minute, and down she tumbled. I like to imagine that their relationship continued to be a love affair of falling off their camels: constantly being delighted and wonderstruck by this amazing person in their life.
And as my mom and Heschel remind us, it’s not just people that can amaze us (though we should let them amaze us most of all!).
We can find amazement and delight in the most ordinary things: a house plant, or pancake, or the fact that we can take another breath. If we stop to consider them, these are extraordinary things!
As we’re recording this episode, we’re in the fifth week of the war between Israel and Hamas. And I find that I’m tired from a lot of worrying.
I continue to worry about the Israeli hostages and pray for their immediate and safe return home. I’m worried about the countless families who have lost loved ones and been displaced from their homes as a result of the war.
I’m worried about antisemitism online and in the streets. I’m worried about what all this will mean for the future.
All that worrying can sometimes lead me to feel exhausted and even a little numb. What goodness can there be in a world like this?
Yet I think the example of Heschel and my mom is maybe even more accessible, and more important, during times like these. There are so many things we take for granted when times are normal: People, places, activities.
When things aren’t normal, it can actually create an opportunity to deepen our appreciation of those things — a house plant, a pancake, a phone call with a loved one, a hug, the fact that we can take another breath.
So the practice I’d like to invite you into this week is this: At least once every day, try to find one ordinary thing and let yourself see it with fresh eyes, for the first time. Allow yourself to wonder at it. It could be an object in your house, a view you walk past all the time, a meal you might otherwise wolf down.
It could be a person at work or in your family or your home. It could really be anything. But once a day, make an intention to pause, notice, and behold just how amazing this thing or place or person is. (And, just to be clear, do it appropriately. If it’s a person, don’t be creepy about it.)
And then, allow yourself to express amazement: Wow! Oh my God! Amazing! And then, allow yourself to express gratitude for this amazing thing in the world, which is full of amazing things.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that we should strive to recite at least a hundred blessings a day. And the amazing thing is, we have so many opportunities to express gratitude, to offer a blessing, to sense radical amazement — well more than 100 a day.
This week, see if you can behold one of those moments each day. See if it helps. And let me know how it goes. Drop me a line at email@example.com.
Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.