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The Upside of Hardship

by Howard Jonas

[Howard Jonas is founder and chairman of IDT Corp., America's #1 telecom company.]

Failure and hardship are part of the human condition. As the old cliche reminds us, "into every life rain falls." Sometimes it just sprinkles and the car won't start, the kids fight, the client cancels or a raise doesn't come through. Other times it's a literal downpour as we face death, disease, divorce, debt and depression. (Ever notice how many bad things start with D?)

People who have faith can turn to their faith to get them through. People who understand that the nature of life is to have ups and downs can accept the downs when they arrive. Those who've fearfully spent life avoiding challenges and risks are more often than not knocked senseless when life's inevitable challenges come a-knocking.

People who are willing to confront challenge may have faced failure, but the failure has often been on their own terms and at their own initiative, thus easier to deal with. Risk-takers who parachute from planes and ride roller coasters are comparatively less fearful when their commercial airliner goes through turbulence.

Simply stated, people who confront challenges are aware that there are ups and downs and neither one is forever. This makes it easier for them to deal with both. Although I can't deny I'm wealthy, this knowledge, surprisingly enough, has made it impossible for me to give up my middle-class lifestyle. Why get used to something that is potentially impermanent? Why give up a perfectly good set of values and friends just to join a "better" club, which would never want you as a member without your bank account? It's better to hang out with the hot dog vendors, the delivery drivers, even corporate chieftains who acknowledge each other's value and G-dliness and the effort they put into trying, than join a group that worships only the fruits of those efforts.

It is how we deal with the aftermath of failure and hardship that truly defines us. G-d could have put us in a "perfect" world, a world without wrongs to right. But He chose to put us in this world so we, as G-d's partners, could make it better, so we could be like G-d and create our own goodness and perfection.

When a sick child is born, the G-dly thing to do is not to doubt G-d's kindness, but to help care for and, if possible, raise the child. The proper response to famine is not questioning but feeding. When confronting yet another tragedy, we should respond not with hopelessness but with love. This brings G-d into the world. Every hardship must somehow be seen as an opportunity for elevation.

The truth is, when I'm confronted with the terrible suffering of terminally ill people, I sometimes sympathize in my heart with the desire of some people in this situation to end their lives. What is the point of life when all it contains is acute physical suffering and helplessness? Yet, there have been religious martyrs who have thanked G-d for their hardship, because it gave them the ability to prove their faith. There are people lying in hospital beds who have inspired their families and followers with their faith, optimism and love, who have allowed their loved ones to elevate themselves by sharing these "worst of times" with them.

Recently I visited an old woman as she lay dying in a hospital. She had spent many Sabbath afternoons as a guest in my house, and I'd been neglectful in not visiting her earlier.

"Boy," she joked when she saw me, "the doctors must think the angel of death is coming soon if you're here to visit." I was a little thrown by her words, so I just sat there making small talk, gazing at the many tubes now running in and out of her once mobile body. I finally left with an immense feeling of hollowness. Then, in the elevator, a thought occurred to me, and I went back to see her again.

"Brenda," I said, "you know how proud you were that you kept faith even when you lost your first husband in the war and then again when your beloved second husband died? You know how you inspired so many people with your stories? Well, Brenda, now you can really win the World Series. As you know better than anyone else, life is nothing but a series of challenges. The little we accomplish while we're active is nothing compared to G-d's whole universe. But, here in this hospital bed, by keeping faith, you're accomplishing more, and challenging G-d to reciprocate, because your challenge is bigger. So in a way, you're more alive now than ever. Don't give it up, Brenda, until it's over!"

"You think I don't know that, Mr. Big Shot?" she joked. "I'm not giving up anything! Still, it's nice to see you've learned a little something from the old lady."

My friend died a couple of weeks later, but I went to her funeral a lot more satisfied for our few extra words.

Failure, you see, doesn't matter. It's the response to failure that's important. In my business, I try to hire only two kinds of people: those who are obsessed in some area of their lives, who perform a certain task with such vigor that I can literally feel the intensity and imagine what that life force could mean for us if properly channeled; the other group consists of individuals who have just had profound failures, screw-ups on an astonishingly grand level. That group includes people whose businesses collapsed because they gambled and lost, whose new technologies failed to gain market acceptance, whose companies have literally crashed and burned under their guidance. "So what," I tell myself, "it could have happened to anyone." Look how far they came before the crash! Look what talent and daring they possessed!

Everyone who's built a successful organization knows there's always a time when, in order to get ahead, you've got to overextend yourself. When you're literally out there alone on a tightrope and a strong breeze one way or the other can blow you off. That I'm here and they're there may just be because I had slightly better balance or better luck. But think of the effort, the talent it took to get there. Wow, if you could harness that kind of magic and bring it in-house, then watch out!

There is a problem, though. Often, having lost everything, having fallen so low after rising so high, these individuals come to me broke and depressed. At this stage of their lives, they don't seem ready to confront any giants or scale any lofty heights. But looks can be deceptive. A person may be down but not out. What once burned brightly is almost always re-ignitable. I always hire these guys, both for their promise and, frankly, also because of my feeling for the brotherhood of humanity. You know, there but for the grace of G-d go I.

With a little nurturing, with a little time, being part of a winning team, these guys always start to thrive. Soon they're back to their old selves. It's never failed. I may have taken them on in part out of a charitable motive, but I've always wound up the real beneficiary, carried along on their shoulders and by their dreams.

Reprinted with permission from InnerNet Magazine

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