Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World

Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World

by Ali Berman


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Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World by Ali Berman

Discover the common approaches and qualities of those who, despite life’s adversities, are at peace in the world—and learn how you can be too.

Ever wonder why some people seem to be at peace despite the ups and downs daily life can bring, while others are restless even in seemingly ideal circumstances? In Choosing a Good Life, Alyson Berman explores what it means to be at peace with ourselves, our choices, and the world around us in all its glorious chaos. She takes us into the lives of people who, despite their vastly different talents, challenges, and interests, have achieved a deep sense of balance in and satisfaction with their lives. Stories include those of Holocaust survivor Emery Jacoby, who rose above anger and bitterness to reaffirm the good in himself and others, along with Sungrai Sohn, a violin prodigy and gifted teacher who lives in the shadow of a potentially fatal illness and many other inspiring life stories. Berman then pinpoints their common approaches and qualities to reveal how they have found contentment-and how we can too.With Choosing a Good Life you will have the tools and guidance to:identify what you truly value,make use of the pain and trials of life to make you stronger, andset priorities to find more time and energy for the things that bring you satisfaction.Learn how to achieve something that eludes so many of us—the sense of purpose that comes with deep self-acceptance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616494681
Publisher: Hazelden Publishing
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ali Bermanreceived her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is represented by the Strachan Literary Agency. Her work can be seen in Unsaid Literary Journal, Elimae, Used Furniture Review and Puerto del Sol.In fall of 2014, Triangle Square Books for Young Readers, a division of Seven Stories Press, will publish her young adult novel Misdirected. The book follows a fifteen-year-old atheist boy from Massachusetts who immediately becomes an outsider after moving to a conservative Christian town in Colorado. Also scheduled for fall 2014 is Choosing a Good Life from Hazelden Publishing, a book that explores people who are at peace with the world and what we can learn from them.In 2012 Ali co-founded flipmeover, a production company that uses media to raise awareness about important social issues. She co-wrote "quiet de luxe", their debut short film that has played in film fests around the world.When not devoting her time to her fiction, Ali works as a humane educator for HEART, teaching children about issues affecting people, animals and the environment. Berman resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two cats.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Three

Emery Jacoby
After The Holocaust

If you ever have the good fortune to meet Emery Jacoby, there are two things you can be sure of. The first is that you will have had the privilege of being hugged and kissed by one of the kindest men you’ll ever meet. (He hugs and kisses everyone.) The second is that when you say goodbye, you’ll already be looking forward to the next time you will see him.

Emery, born in Romania in 1922, is now 90 years old, has been married for over sixty years, and embodies the very idea of happiness. His love for his wife, his family, his friends and his immense sense of compassion for the world around him are contagious. Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by his story. It’s not just that he’s a happy man; it’s that he’s happy despite experiencing one of the most horrific periods of history and examples of human cruelty one can imagine. In addition to being an architect, a designer, a husband, a father and grandfather, Emery is a Holocaust survivor.

On April 17th, 1944, at the age of twenty, Emery Jacoby was taken by the Nazis, along with all the other 15 to 25-year-old Jewish men in his hometown of Mores, Romania. For the next six months, he was led on a forced death march for hundreds of miles through Hungary to the Austrian border. They were fed rotten cabbage soup, made to carry rocks and dig trenches, and slept however and wherever they could along the side of the road. For that half a year, Emery kept going, putting one foot in front of the other while all around him boys and men, his friends and neighbors, were dying from hunger, exhaustion, and executions. 70 to 80% of Emery’s companions perished on that march. The survivors were brought to Dachau, a concentration camp northwest of Munich to endure more torture, humiliation and murder.

In many ways, Emery’s personality, one that is infused with an unflinching sense of hope, is what got him through the war alive. That and, of course, some good luck. Just days after arriving at Dachau, Munich, as Emery put it, “was bombed to oblivion and many of the major buildings collapsed.” The bombing was so severe that Germany didn’t have enough workers to rescue the people who were trapped beneath the rubble. Because Dachau was so close, any reasonably fit prisoners from the camp were trucked into Munich to work. That was Emery’s good fortune. A Hungarian train carrying soldiers was nearby on recreation. He was able to get hold of a pair of pants and a shirt to pose as a Hungarian soldier, and simply walk away.

I wish that was the happy ending to this particular story, but even after escaping, danger was everywhere in Europe. Emery managed to travel all the way to the city of Graz in Austria where he hid amongst the enemy, working as an auto mechanic, hoping he wouldn’t be discovered by the Nazi soldiers who were working day and night to exterminate entire populations of people. His people.

When the Russians came, Emery fled on a motorcycle and hid in a barn, but was captured days later and brought to a Russian prison camp. Despite being a victim of the Nazis, Emery was trapped against his will again, the Russians not caring who he was or what he had been through. With the help of two partisans, Jewish freedom fighters, he slipped under the barbed wire as his companions, who were fluent in Russian, bargained and bribed their way free. Had he not been helped, he would have been boxed up along with the other prisoners and shipped to Siberia

It was a long trip back east to Romania. Emery had no idea if his mother, father and two sisters were dead or alive. When he arrived home, and his sisters came back, he was told that his mother and father perished at Auschwitz. Days after Emery was taken, his remaining family was brought to the concentration camp where they too experienced unimaginable suffering. His sisters were freed the day before they were supposed to be sent to the crematorium. One more day and Emery would have been the sole survivor of his immediate family.

Upon hearing Emery’s story, a few questions kept repeating themselves in my head over and over again. What was it that was in you that kept you going? Not just during the Holocaust, but after. How does someone go back to any kind of normal life after seeing the very worst of what humanity is capable of?

It’s been about 70 years since Emery was stolen from his home. Sitting in the same room as us is his wife of 60 years, Elaine, and his grandson, Sam, who at this very moment, at twenty years old, is the same age Emery was when he became a prisoner. I look at the two of them and wonder how anyone so young, so innocent, could survive such barbarity.

For Emery, the answer isn’t complicated. He knew exactly what made him survive. He told me, “I was convinced that I’m not going to die. And, it worked. The minute you gave up it was practically over. Because, there was no food, no clothing, you were exposed to the elements, the hopelessness. You had to be a moron to think you were going to survive. Everyone was being killed all around you. Why should you be the exception?”

And yet, Emery believed he would live. His determination to make it through the war, in many ways, made it happen. During the march across Hungary and Austria, he could have given in to the exhaustion. He could have lost his will to fight. But no. Emery is not a person who gives up. His fortitude helped him become a survivor. It was that same love of life and willingness to believe in the impossible that helped him to move beyond the nightmare of the Holocaust and stay the open and compassionate person he is today.

Building a Happy Marriage
When I asked Emery what he valued most over the course of his long life, his answer was simple: relationships. With nine decades under his belt, he has had the time to develop and foster a wide variety of strong connections with others, both with family and friends. After the war, part of what kept him going was his sisters. With both of his parents gone, he was the male head of the family. He stayed in Romania to watch both of his sisters get married, and then made his way to across Europe and eventually to the United States.

Having sisters to care for undoubtedly helped Emery transition from doing his best to survive to starting his life over again. He had no choice but to regain some normalcy so that he could care for his family. Once they were married, he was able to move to America as a refugee, study architecture and pursue a brand new life.

That’s when he met Elaine, and began what Emery calls his sixty-year honeymoon. He’s not poking fun. He really means it. Together, they built a family, now with children and grandchildren, as well as an intricate network of friends.

It would be easy for me to sit here and tell you, “Go out and find a great marriage and you’ll be happy” as if one can be purchased on the discount shelf at Target. The truth is, a great marriage takes time, a whole lot of patience and understanding from both sides. Emery’s marriage has stayed strong not just because of his love for Elaine (which is immense), but because he is able to regulate his emotions.

Emery told me, “I swear to you in sixty years I never raised my voice. Ever. Never apologized. Never had to.” How did he manage such an incredible feat? He said, “Number 1: Unquestionable love. Next most important thing is tolerance. You have to be tolerant. Two people growing up in different environments, in different worlds have differences of opinion, you have to have enormous mutual respect."

Emery is kind to the core, and perhaps even more importantly, has the discipline of mind to not let the small stuff bother him. He resolves conflicts with his words, the most powerful tool one has in any sort of relationship. And one I can personally attest to. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m on the path to finding a balanced and satisfying life and that not all of the pieces are in place yet. But a happy marriage? That’s something I have in common with Emery. I told him that in over seven years of marriage (a fraction of his marriage) Gary and I have also never yelled. Talking builds stronger relationships. Emery and Elaine are living proof of that. And it turns out, that quality is one of the best predictors of a happy relationship.

Leslie C. Burpee and Ellen J. Langer, in their study “Mindfulness and Marital Satisfaction,” found that Emery and Elaine’s knack for discussing a problem, and working to see the other’s point of view, is perhaps the single most important signifier of a happy marriage. Burpee and Langer write, “Mindful techniques, such as drawing distinctions across situations, acknowledging the existence of alternative perspectives, and recognizing that disadvantages may also be advantages from others’ points of view, may help foster more positive and satisfying relationships by creating an environment that is rich with open-mindedness and flexibility, rather than criticism and rigidity.”

In their study, which was based on a survey of 95 individuals, they found that mindfulness was more important than any other factor in predicting the health of a relationship, even more important than sharing common interests. It sure is nice to have a lot in common with your partner, but when it comes to choosing a spouse for the long haul, liking the same films isn’t going to cut it. Finding someone who you can have a productive dialogue with, especially on a sensitive subject, is the key to longevity and happiness within a romantic partnership.

Relationships are one of the primary keys to happiness, but only good relationships. A toxic marriage or friendship can be absolutely devastating to one’s mental health. Before you decide whether or not to tie the knot, or even to stay married, ask yourself a few questions. Does your partner listen to you when you express your concerns? Do they try and work with you to find a solution to your mutual problems? When a problem does present itself, do they talk calmly rather than yell? Do you feel comfortable bringing up issues to your partner, even the sensitive and scary ones? Do you know that no matter what the problem may be, you can always expect an open and productive conversation to help address the issue? If you answered yes to those questions, then it’s likely you have a relationship filled with mindfulness. If you answered no to any or all, or think you might even be at fault for yelling or not listening to your partner, consider working toward the goal of being more open. Talk to your partner about how they handle conflict, and how you can both work together to be more flexible.

The old cliché is true. You have to give a little to get a little. A sixty-year honeymoon doesn’t magically happen without work and a whole lot of mental discipline. People who talk through their difficulties rather than yell aren’t less prone to negative emotions than others. It’s that they recognize that conversation works to improve even the most delicate of troubles, while yelling, passive aggressiveness or retaliation only furthers the divide between two people. Is the goal to win at a conflict? Or is the goal to resolve a conflict? If we all treat every problem as something we want to resolve, and work to see things from the other person’s perspective, conflict resolution becomes a collaborative process.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

Embracing Life in the Midst of Illness 7

Chapter 1 Sungrai, a Master of the Violin and the "State of Flow"

Nourishing Our Gifts 25

Chapter 2 Cathy, a Marriage and Family Therapist Who Became Who She Always Was

Building a Rich and Meaningful Life After a Trauma 43

Chapter 3 Emery, Holocaust Survivor and Compassionate Optimist

Living Our Values 61

Chapter 4 Zoe, Cofounder of the Institute for Humane Education and Dedicated "Solutionary"

Taking the Path Less Traveled 79

Chapter 5 Eric, an Unencumbered Explorer

Living Fully in the World as we Contribute to It 95

Chapter 6 Leanne, an Ethical Entrepreneur with a Balanced Life

Saying Yes to Life 115

Chapter 7 Michal, an Honest Man Living Fully and Flexibly in a Land between Two Countries

Moving Forward After the Loss of a Loved One 133

Chapter 8 Daphne, a Filmmaker Who Keeps Love Alive Through Her Art

Finding Balance Through Religion and Spirituality 149

Chapter 9 Alex, an Alternative Healer Who Lives a Life of Body, Mind, and Spirit

Living Our Dreams 167

Chapter 10 Lisa, a "Renaissance Woman" Who Is Living Her Dreams

Epilogue 187

Notes 191

About the Author 195

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Choosing a Good Life: Lessons from People Who Have Found Their Place in the World 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so wonderfully cozy, not because of the stories it tells - those are huge adventures of the heart - but because of Ali Berman's warm, friendly voice as she tells them. A very worthy read.