As we shuffle our way into the fourth year of the pandemic, it seems fair to say that no one is doing well. People are sad, anxious, depressed, burnt out, exhausted, hopeless or just . . . fine. There is no going back to the world before, and I don’t think we could anyway. People are raw and grieving and looking for ways to engage with the world that have deep meaning. The superficial goals of our lives before pale in comparison to what we want for the world to come.
Rabbi Daniel A. Kripper, spiritual leader and part-time rabbi at Temple Shalom in Middletown, has written a book, “Living Fully” (Independently published, 2022) that tackles many of these issues. Rabbi Kripper makes sure to let the reader know that this is not a self-help book nor a “fast-track spirituality” book. What it is turns out to be a little harder to pin down. In short, it is a collection of advice on living a life with meaning drawn from many of the major world religions, therapeutic practices and mindfulness resources. The chapters tackle issues like gratitude, overcoming fear, habit, change, anger, compassion, kindness, forgiveness and happiness. It is, in many ways, an overview of many of the self-help books of the past decade. “Living Fully” differs from so many of those books because it is not focused on being better at your job, or more efficient, or more productive. Instead, this book is focused on what I can only articulate as being more soulful, more alive in your life, and, yes, happier.
Each chapter includes quotes, parables, religious teachings, and the author’s own analysis of the theme. My favorite part is that at the end of each chapter Rabbi Kripper has a section of exercises that relate to the chapter’s theme. I am well-read in the self-help and productivity realm and even I found some tips and ideas I had never heard before. In the section on gratitude the author suggests forming a gratitude circle with some friends, either in person or online. He cites Facebook, but I think even a text chain would be great for this. The idea is to make a positive space for people to share gratitude, poems and just nice things. With the constant deluge of bad in the world, I really loved this idea.
As someone who spends a lot of time on the internet and social media for work, I often find myself overwhelmed with all the terrible news. I find myself crying at my desk at least once a month while reading about the rise in antisemitism, the rollback on women’s rights, the persecution of LGBTQIA+ adults and children and the endless mass shooting deaths. In his chapter on compassion Rabbi Kripper writes this: “It is always good to say a prayer. Every time I hear or see an ambulance pass by, I pray for the person in it. Likewise, every time I see a fire engine or a police car pass by, or I read a tragic news article. This act of praying in silence or sending positive energy to those who suffer opens your heart.”
I honestly feel like my heart is already too open, but I think this could serve an additional purpose —praying is doing something. So much of the hurt and harm so many of us are reckoning with right now is that in the face of monumental pain and suffering, we feel powerless. Rabbi Kripper is by no means advocating for a “thoughts and prayers” approach to suffering, instead, he is asking us to pause at each moment of pain and look at it, feel it and ask for something better.
“In Western culture, kindness, like compassion – despite its intrinsic value – is not a valued asset for social advancement,” Rabbi Kripper writes. This, I think, is the thesis statement of the whole book. All of the values explored in these chapters are intrinsic and make everyone’s life better, but not all of them are supported by our society of competition and profit. There is a huge tension between the sort of person one needs to be to succeed in America and the sort of person one needs to be to be happy.
“A wise man once mentioned regarding the story in the book of Genesis that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the removal of Adam and Eve from paradise was a positive event in the history of humanity, since it drove the need for mutual help,” Rabbi Kripper writes. Our exile made us need one another and in turn, made us needed. This is where joy and happiness live, in the ties between people that the pandemic frayed.
For those who have done a lot of reading in the self-help and productivity genre (as I have!), many of the ideas in this book will not feel new. Their orientation toward kindness, however, did feel new to me. Though simple, many of these ideas work – they draw from religious practice and scientific studies that are concerned with the well-being of individuals and groups. It is also a hopeful book, which is nice when optimism feels hard to come by. Though there were a few typesetting errors (some passages repeated accidentally), and some of the advice seems obvious (though that doesn’t mean I’m doing it!) those weren’t enough to put me off some of the truly great ideas for living more fully.
This book starts with a quote I’ve been thinking about ever since, “An ancient Hebrew liturgical poem states: ‘Why does man complain about his life? Shouldn’t it be enough to be alive?’”
To be alive, dayenu.
SARAH GREENLEAF (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the digital marketing specialist for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and writes for Jewish Rhode Island. “Living Fully” is available on Amazon.com.