I’ve set out, on our 52 week journey, to conduct a life review, to sort life’s bits and pieces into a meaningful whole. This week, I'm challenging myself to name the five people who wield the most influence on me and my life. I say “wield", in present tense, because I'm certain that the names I select now are not the same that I’d have chosen ten years ago.
I encourage you to try this exercise. You don't have to publicize your list. You may want to come up with only two or three names. You may even want to consider people who have had a significant influence through their negative behavior. The benefit of doing this work is the opportunity to learn so much about what drives you and what helps you form yourself. So, here's my roster.
My guess is that most people would insert a teacher on their list. I am turned on by the inherently giving nature of this profession and I feel a need to speak about two teachers. First, there is Barry Hannel, who made me realize that science is cool. Before I met him, he was employed as a football player for the New York Giants. But concurrent with his teaching, most of his income was coming from success as a professional poker player. You might imagine the intrigue that fifth graders would associate with someone who was equal parts accomplished athlete and gambler but the inspiring dimension was his willingness to completely reveal himself for the sake of teaching.
My most vivid recollection of Barry is the day when he rolled up his trousers. He’d just returned from having his left leg amputated. Exposing his stump, he explained for us the ravages of diabetes. Barry Hannel definitely left an impression on me.
Rabbi Shraga Solomon, however, is the teacher who continues to impact me most. Prior to entering medical school, when I enrolled in a Jerusalem-based yeshivah, I was a student of "Rav Shraga”. As I immigrated to Israel fifteen years ago, Rav Shraga invited me to attend a private, weekly study group at his home in Jerusalem.
I work in a world dominated by innovative scientists, yet Rav Shraga is perhaps the most creative thinker whom I know. Even so, each time that he comes up with a new spin on the Scripture or the Codes of Jewish Law, he assumes that he could not have intuited the innovation himself but must have read the concept somewhere else. I’m drawn to his modesty as well as to his emphasis on religious laws that underscore responsibility to one's fellow man above perfunctory worship of G-d.
Anyone who knows me would accuse me of being less than honest if I did not include a figure from the world of sports. Even the most oblique reference to Roger Federer's backhand or Usain Bolt's speed will cause me to perk up. Sandy Koufax -- one of the great patriarchs of my faith, to paraphrase The Big Lebowski -- has to get honorable mention for the character that he displayed by declining to pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. My top sports hero, however, is Stan Musial.
In the latter part of 1989, when I was acquiring supplementary medical training at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, I was involved in Musial's treatment for prostate cancer. Although Musial holds numerous baseball records and won the Branch Rickey Award for community service, I include him on my list for a different reason. Every day, following his grueling radiation therapy, "Stan the Man" would stay to sign autographs and answer questions. He would spend hours offering insights on topics ranging from struggling with illness to fighting off a major league fastball. When I asked why, despite his fatigue, he chose to invest so much in strangers, he answered in a humble manner. He recognized, he said, that people admired him as one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. But no matter what circle you occupy, he explained, "There are going to be folks who look up to you as a role model." He was saying that everyone is surrounded by nephews, neighbors and co-workers who regard them as noble but cautioning that the challenge is to carry oneself with grace instead of the easy default of inflating one's own egos. Without getting theological about it, Musial used the term "holiness" to describe human beings who had availed themselves of this "graceful carriage". His words were understated and indelible.
For my fourth figure of influence, I’m jotting down the name of perhaps one of the most misunderstood personalities in modern history, Charles Darwin. According to most of his biographers, Darwin did not set out to be an iconoclast or an antagonist to organized religion. He apparently realized, though, that his concept of evolution would forever alter our understanding of biology, and so he felt obliged to tell his truth. This is not the place to defend my view that Darwin's theories are fully compatible with trends described in the Book of Genesis, but I will say that Darwin appeals to me because of the way in which he maintained his convictions even as his ideas were being ridiculed by the religious establishment and because his concept of natural selection is predicated on the notion of adaptability.
I am quite sure that if you look at the people whom you consider most successful, you will see a common pattern: they are able to adapt. As a dear friend who is now battling breast cancer for the second time points out, it's all about learning to readjust. By that, I think she means an ability to bend as new realities emerge. And that's a skill that we can all cultivate. While Darwin emphasized the impact of adaptability on the likelihood of both survival and life prolongation, I am convinced that adaptability has an even greater impact on life quality. We might all be wise to learn how to readjust.
The most influential person, I’ve saved for last. That person is my life-partner, Dvora. Since I could surely go on forever about the person whose heart I carry in my heart, I will force myself to be concise. My wife shines with optimism. The glow even radiates on her curmudgeon of a husband. I'm lucky to spend so much time with a person who manages to summon unending enthusiasm. In addition, she is supportive of me. No, let me sharpen that, she is supremely supportive of me. I can not think of a single opportunity that has come my way that she has not encouraged me to pursue. I hope I have done the same for her and for others that have crossed my path.
So there you have my list of the people who have influenced me most. Because of them I have tried to internalize qualities such as giving, grace, adaptability, and supportiveness. Each one of them has left a deep imprint on my life. Each one of them – whether they know it or not - has my gratitude and my love.
Now, which people will you include on your list?
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