A Little Leo Rosten for You This Sunday


When I was a girl, I found a saying by Leo Rosten. I liked it so much that I typed it up and kept it with my memorabilia. Leo Rosten, who died in 1997, was many things: my favorite book of his is The Joys Of Yiddish, where I finally figured out what my New York City-raised mother and father meant with some of the words they used in conversation. (My parents were not Jewish, but all those raised in New York City during that time used Yiddish slang words.)

Rosten is best known as the "Jewish James Thurber," that is, someone who writes humorous stories and books. But the quote of his I liked the best appeared in a Rotary magazine, The Rotarian, in September 1965 (pp. 32, 33, 55), in a piece entitled "The Myths By Which We Live." We didn't subscribe to the magazine, and I was too young at that time to have noticed the quote, but somehow when I was a young teen, I came across an excerpt--and that's when I grabbed it and kept it. You can find one line of this excerpt online in various quotation compilers, but the whole quote is more than that one sentence. After skewering various myths, such as "never lie," "get out and vote," etc., he tackles one final myth:

"Finally, there is the myth which gives me the greatest pain: the myth that the purpose of life is happiness, and that you ought to have fun, and that your children ought to have fun. Where was it written that life is so cheap? Where was it written that life is, or should be, or can ever be free of conflict and effort and deprivation and sacrifice? If you want idiot happiness, take tranquilizers, or pray for senility. I think that in the human being, anxiety is inevitable and periodic depression normal. I would dispute the sanity of anyone living in this world who is not subject to periodic depression.

"There was a time when men were permitted the dignity of depression or suffering, when we were allowed moods, when we were permitted to be preoccupied; but under the vulgarized diffusion of psychiatric insights, we are not permitted to be depressed, because everyone rushes in to offer help.

"Nonetheless, the purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived.

"And so, this is my creed, which may take the curse off all the other myths so cherished by us that I have so heartlessly destroyed. I think that today, more than ever, free men must realize that they must oppose hysteria and extremism and error, even when that error is wrapped in patriotism and is enunciated by those we like; that we must know that it is impossible for a society not to change, and that we must always seek change without violence; that we must try to understand man by recognizing that most men never mature at all--they simply grow taller; and that the motivations of the child are but writ large in the man.

"We must learn to meet fanaticism with courage, and idealism with great care, for we must be sceptical of what is promised, even by virtuous men, but has not been proved.

"We must be strong enough to be kind. We must know that life will always have unbearable stretches of loneliness and uncertainty and pain, and that we may as well stop running around insisting that "everyone try to understand me," because we can never be completely understood by anyone, no matter how much they may love us, and we can never completely understand anyone else, no matter how much we love them or how much we try.

"We must learn to moderate our demands on other people. We must learn to have the courage to live without absolutes, to seek imaginary escapes from the strait jackets of conformity--knowing, with Emerson, that 'whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist.'

"And, above all, we must realize that you can only meet life in a series of tentative and impermanent approximations, knowing that the final goals may never be reached, that the last truths are perhaps unknowable to us, and that life holds nothing more precious than the process by which we stretch the mind and the heart."

Reading this again after many years, I see mostly truths in it, plus a few things I now would not hold to. I believe there are some absolutes, and that conformity to God's laws, at a minimum, is critical to our purpose and our education here on earth. Though the last truths may not be knowable to us in this life, there is more to our existence than just this life.

But there are things in these passages that are of value. While we call God's plan the Great Plan of Happiness, the plan is not for us to feel happy all the time. In fact, if we do, I'd say we weren't learning, growing, or changing. While we may feel an underlying peace that "all these experiences" will be to our good, I think it was a wise person who once said, "The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable." Rosten is right that sometimes feeling depressed or anxious is not only normal, but also part of the process of growing. (Of course, I am not talking about constant, pathological states of anxiety or depression here.) To be honest, most of my most sincere attempts to connect with Heaven have been precipitated by unhappy feelings. What I would have missed if that catalyst had never been present!

I have also come to feel that Rosten is right that it is the process that is so important here in our earth life. While I may not have confidence in my own abilities, I have the greatest confidence that this process of earth life designed by our Heavenly Parents is a good and robust one, and that I can trust in Their process They created to endow Their children with wisdom. In those days when I get down on myself, I try to remember how much faith I have in Them that Their process, which They have perfected through the eternities, is capable of turning even me into someone my Heavenly Parents would be happy to claim as Their daughter.

There are many other worthwhile nuggets in these passages--do any stand out to you?