When I was ten, I met the person who was to shape my life for much of the next decade. Ruthie was athletic, upbeat, smart, confident – and caring and sensitive to others. Ruthie was the rare teenager who didn't freak out if she had a pimple or a bad hair day. It was clear she was comfortable with herself. Who wouldn’t be? She had the perfect life: a successful and strong father, the mom who spearheaded every community initiative, hosted all the must-attend events, and nurtured her family. They vacationed in Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Israel. Ruthie had a closet full of clothes and shoes, jewelry; she was it. More than once I envied her, imagining how happy I, too, could be, if I had the fifteen pairs of Nordstrom shoes lined up in the closet, tennis lessons and a summer house. She was picked first for sports teams - and for boyfriends. "No big deal to be happy when you have the perfect life. If only I could be Ruthie."
When she didn't have kids for a year or two after her wedding, I thought, "They're waiting to establish themselves. First they'll buy a house, he'll make partner..." But five years in, she confided that they were having trouble. After years of expensive and painful fertility treatments, they were blessed with children. Then her mother became ill and died. When I spoke with Ruthie at shivah, she said her family was sad, but not bitter, that her mom had a great life full of many blessings, and they just wished she'd lived longer. I grappled with her grateful response, confused. "Where's the bottomless grief? Is this for real?" But the longer I listened to her, the more I had to accept that her response was genuine.
When Ruthie discovered that she carried the genetic propensity for the disease that killed her mom, she had a double mastectomy and oophorectomy. I was shaken by the news - but not as much as I was by her attitude. "How are you?" I pressed Ruthie, staggered by her overwhelming losses - first her mother, and now all this. "I'm great!" She said. "Great?" I echoed. "Yeah, really. Now I don't have to wonder if I'll get to see my kids grow up. I'm just so happy knowing that I'm disease free." And she meant it.
That's when I realized that it wasn't Ruthie's perfect life that made her happy -- it was her happiness that made her life perfect. That it wasn't the trappings that made Ruthie attractive to be with -- it was her essence.
And all those years of comparing myself? They didn't disappear. Instead, now I think about how I measure up to Ruthie in attitude, in coping with what life throws my way, in understanding that everything that happens is part of my mission, and that you can no more carry out someone's mission than you can live for them.