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Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict between Conscience and Success

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From the celebrated author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People , a profound and practical book about doing well by doing good.

For decades now, from the pulpit and through his writing, Harold Kushner has been helping people navigate the rough patches of life: loss, guilt, crises of faith. Now, in this compelling new work, he ad-dresses an equally important issue: our craving for significance, the need to know that our lives and our choices mean something.
We sometimes do great things, and sometimes terrible things, to reassure ourselves that we matter to the world. We sometimes confuse fame, power, and wealth with true achievement. But finally we need to think of ourselves as good people, and we are troubled when we compromise our integrity in the pursuit of what we think of as success.

Harold Kushner tells us that the path to a truly successful and significant life is through friendship, through family, and through acts of generosity and self-sacrifice. He describes how, in affecting the life
of even one person in a positive way, we make a difference in the world, and prove that we do in fact matter.
Persuasive and sympathetic, anecdotal and commonsensical, Living a Life That Matters inspires and uplifts.

176 pages, Hardcover

First published September 4, 2001

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About the author

Harold S. Kushner

63 books326 followers
Harold S. Kushner is rabbi laureate of Temple Israel in the Boston suburb of Natick, Massachusetts. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he is the author of more than a dozen books on coping with life’s challenges, including, most recently, the best-selling Conquering Fear and Overcoming Life’s Disappointments.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 144 reviews
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
804 reviews2,538 followers
March 22, 2014
Years ago I enjoyed reading Rabbi Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People. "Living a Life that Matters" follows in a similar approach; short and concise, but coherent and realistic. A recurring theme throughout the book is the life of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who lived a most interesting life. Early in life he was disengenuous, "stealing" his brother's birthright and then deceiving his father, Isaac. But, what goes around comes around, when he wanted to marry Rachel, and instead his future father-in-law switched Leah in her place. (It is the first instance in the Bible, where it is mentioned that someone marries for love."

Kushner peppers his book with interesting anecdotes, gathered from his years as the leader of a congregation. He writes about a feminist who was about to be married. Kushner was surprised that she would take her fiance's surname after marriage. But she said that "if I'm to be known by some guy's name, I'd rather it be the guy I chose than the guy my mother chose."

Kushner writes a lot about victims of crimes wanting vengeance. But instead, he submits that harming criminals is not the real objective. Instead, victims really want to reclaim their dignity, to tell their story and be acknowledged, and to reclaim control over their lives. This is embodied within a movement known as "Restorative Justice".

Kushner writes, "Forgiveness, I try to tell them, is a favor we do ourselves, not a favor we do the other party." It is not that a criminal deserves forgiveness, but the victim deserves "better than to be permanently mired in the bitterness of the past. As long as your soul is corroded by hatred, you are still their [victim]."

I enjoyed reading about Aaron Feuerstein, as an example of someone who has great integrity. He was the owner of a factory that suffered a big fire in 1995. He could have collected the insurance, and restarted his company in a region where labor costs were lower. But instead, he kept three thousand employees on the payroll while the factory was rebuilt in the original location. In the meantime, he battled insurance agents, competitors, government officials, and his own managers. Feuerstein is not a saint, but he is a "good" person.

Kushner writes about ethical dilemmas. Sometimes the "right" thing to do is ambiguous, especially when weighing which of two options is best. He writes that "The rule should be: When facing a dilemma, choose the more morally demanding alternative."

Kushner also writes about friendship. Friendship is extremely important, because it is voluntary. People are friends because they want to be, not because they are family or work colleagues, and they meet emotional needs that might not be satisfied elsewhere. Kushner maintains that true friendship is more difficult for men than for women. Men may have "buddies", but have difficulty opening up emotionally to others. Kushner also writes a lot about God; he sees that God is not in people, but in the social relationships between people. This is quite an interesting viewpoint.

So, how does one live a life that matters? It's sort of trite, but quite apropros for Kushner to discuss the movie It's a Wonderful Life. He admits that the movie is corny, but it really gets to the heart of the matter. After describing the movie, he brings up a parallel story, a true story about a scientist who faced a terminal illness, and felt that he had wasted his life. But he didn't realize the medical devices he had invented had truly saved lives, removing terrible suffering, and allowed people with chronic illness to live normal lives. In the climax of the story, the scientist was invited to a dinner party, where he met some of the people who benefitted from his inventions.

The author maintains that the prospect of death does not frighten most people. What really frightens them is the "dread of insignificance." People don't want to live forever--they desperately want to "live long enough to get it right, to feel that they have done something worthwhile with their lives, however long." Kushner ends his book with,
"The Talmud recordsthis exchange between two of the sages:
"Our ancestor Jacob never died."
"How can you say that? The Bible describes him as dying in Egypt and being buried in Hebron."
"A good person, even in death, is still alive."

This is a marvelous book. It is short, and kept my interest throughout. It is not preachy. The book is inspiring, and was well worth my atention.
Profile Image for Robyn.
377 reviews14 followers
November 23, 2019
This was a very lovely way to spend a Saturday morning during a tough time of year. I sort of like to think of Harold Kushner as my spiritual advisor since When Bad Things Happen to Good People helped me so much after my dad died. This one is a meditation on what it means to be a "good person", which was more relevant reading for this stage of grief, and in general a topic I like to think about, learn about, challenge my brain with.

This was the third book I've ready by Kushner and I have loved them all. I finish each one feeling very emotionally and intellectually stimulated, and inspired to be a better person. While he is a Rabbi and writes from his religious perspective, I'd venture to say that his books are accessible to anyone of any religion (or no religion). With this one in particular, if you're a fan of The Good Place not just for the jokes but for the moral philosophy theme, this book might scratch some of that itch after the show ends in a few weeks. Also perhaps good companion reading for someone who recently finished East of Eden. I do love that theme of "what does it mean to be human?"

This is definitely one for the "to eventually buy" list.
32 reviews
September 19, 2021
Loved this book.
Have many dog ears on pages with take-aways and quotes I liked.

Was a spiritual book without feeling like one and brought in Jewish ideas in a way I've never read or heard before. Goes through all the life stages and gives insights on how to "live a life that matters" and uses the story of Jacob in the bible and modern anecdotes to highlight these points.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and will read more of Kushner's work.
Profile Image for Ann Baxter.
456 reviews
October 21, 2009
Loved it! Kushner has a way of making all of us feel better about ourselves yet want to strive to be better. His use of the biblical Jacob to explain the internal conflicts within us all was fascinating. Kushner is an intelligent yet thoughtful writer.
Profile Image for Sue.
613 reviews24 followers
June 10, 2020
This book is a thoughtful discourse on what makes life matter, on what can bring significance to a single life. Kushner notes that worldly success often appears to come only with the demise of personal conscience, but he also argues persuasively that it needn't be this way. Using the biblical story of Jacob, who tricked his own brother into selling his birthright but later became a sincere man of God, Kushner teaches us that we CAN change for the better, we CAN "succeed" without sacrificing our moral principles, and that our lives CAN be meaningful in all the right ways if we continue to persevere.

A particular point that is made in this book is especially worth mentioning at this time. In order to feel you have lived a life that matters, you must also feel you have been HEARD -- that the truth of your own experience has been acknowledged. In my opinion, this is what is driving the current demonstrations and protests. Black Americans (and people of color, generally) have been treated unfairly by the police and judicial systems for far too long, and they have seized this moment in order to finally be HEARD -- to force the nation to acknowledge that black lives matter.

As a white woman who remembers the unrest of the 1960's, I didn't really want to admit the injustices. I thought we had "fixed" much of the racism in the country, and that blacks were treated equally to whites in all but a few isolated instances. After all, we had voted in a black president, right? 2020 has been filled with enough video footage to show me how wrong I was. Many things still need to change, but the take-away message in this book is that each person CAN change. And if enough of us can do that, then we will have changed the nation.

So, this is a recommended book (3.5 stars). It is filled with a gentle wisdom that, as it turns out, is more timely than ever.
Profile Image for Veronika.
40 reviews1 follower
May 3, 2021
„Jakmile si uvědomíme, že žízeň po pomstě je ve skutečnosti potřeba získat zpátky svou moc, setřást pocit oběti a nahradit bezmoc činem, můžeme najít způsoby, jak tuto potřebu uspokojit bez ubližování druhému člověku a zproněvěření se své vlastní dobrotě.“

„Jákob Boha neprosí, aby jeho problém vyřešil za něj. Nežádá Boha, aby na Ezaua seslal ztrátu paměti a aby se už na Jákoba nezlobil. Nemodlí se o nějaký chytrý nápad, který by mu pomohl Ezaua obalamutit, aby mu odpustil. Modlí se o sílu udělat správnou věc. Bezprostředně po tom jej přepadne anděl.“

„Bůh nám dal břemena a Bůh nám dal také ramena.“

„Nová přítelkyně může ženu znovu přivést k sobě, umožnit jí podívat se na sebe novýma očima a s novým názorem… Z chyb se stanou silné stránky, pochybnosti o sobě se odlehčí přijetím… Přátelé napomůžou změně spíše než rodina.“
Profile Image for Walter.
130 reviews51 followers
April 10, 2009
This is an important book - it deals thoughtfully with many aspects of our existence, beginning with helping us to conceptualize our dual needs/goals of success and significance. On the whole, it is written in a straightforward, common sense style, refreshingly free of dogma and cant. As such, then, it delivers piercing insights into our human nature and our (need for/ inclination toward) spirituality that are as convincing as they are clear. After having been disappointed by his earlier, far better known work When Bad Things Happen to Good People (which, among other things, tended to stop short of convincing answers to some of the difficult questions that it raised and then fell back on the frequent use of the rationale or excuse that God is limited in nature), I was surprisingly moved by this tome, mainly because of its accessibility and reasonableness.

The only complaint that I would register is that in a few places, Rabbi Kushner's rationale for assessing the authenticity of God's presence in our lives is that we may not not like the message, but because it's from God, we're willing to share it anyway. In other words, if it's not exactly what you would want God to say to you, it's legit. Thankfully, this only occurred in a couple of places in this otherwise soundly reasoned and reflective work.

I recommend this book highly to help you gain greater clarity and appreciation for your sense of spirituality and how it can and should be reflected in your daily thoughts and behavior as well as to burnish your appreciation for the blessings that you have and the legacy that you create with your life (and, ultimately, leave to future generations).
Profile Image for Jacqueline.
Author 94 books84 followers
November 24, 2009

I loved this book so much, I bought copies as gifts to share with others. Kushner gathers together material from many great souls and shares their combined wisdom in a lovely narrative interwoven with biblical exegesis.
Some of my favorite quotes from this book:

p.145 As Mother Teresa said, "Few of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love."

p.158 " A good person, even in death, is still alive."

p. 154 "If a person has known love, has felt and given love, that person's life has made a difference."

p. 156 "Teach me to feel joy as deelpy as I feel sorrow (Psalm 90:15)

2 reviews2 followers
June 28, 2009
I love the words of Harold Kushner. Though, I am not Jewish what he writes is timeless and for anyone who truly wants to become a better person. I finished this book last month but I already have started to reread the book. The book definitely should be read many times.
Profile Image for Angela.
6 reviews
September 14, 2009
One of my favorite authors. He is most famous for writing "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." This book weaves philsophy and religion in a common sense practical approach that is applicable to everyday life.
Profile Image for Emily.
21 reviews
February 9, 2023
Rating this more as a 4.5 than a 4.

This is the first book of Kushner's that I've read (somewhat at the suggestion of my Rabbi, though she'd not read this book yet) and I really loved it. I used to be involved in church as a young girl, but now as an adult am a Jewish conversion student; my childhood religious education focused very much so on certain stories, but neglected others. Recently in Torah study, we discussed the story of Jacob fighting with the stranger and earning the name Israel, and this has become a very meaningful story to my life. Kushner explains Jacob's ascent from devious child to a great man who has lived and loved well and connects it to many situations where the reader may also be dealing with a similar struggle of identity and assurance that their life is meaningful.

The only issues that stopped me from rating five stars were a few spots that had information I felt had been a little misrepresented by Kushner. The most prominent example was him mentioning a rise in divorce rates among his congregants during the 70's. He painted this to seem like it might have been due to communication errors in relationships (which could definitely contribute), but we also know in hindsight that changing divorce laws which made it easier to get a divorce allowed people in long-term, unhappy marriages- especially women who'd been abused or mistreated- caused a statistical increase. The couple times this happened really took my mind out of the book; but they were not super common and they didn't take away from the impact of Kushner's message at all.

I'd definitely recommend this book to someone, struggling or not, to touch base with themself and really consider all the reasons their life matters (because it does!) and understand how their life serves to influence others' lives. The only hesitation I'd have in recommending this is that most of my friends are agnostic, atheist, or have beliefs that do not align with Abrahamic religions and probably would not care for the discussion of God in this manner.
Profile Image for Jennifer Mortt Johnson.
81 reviews2 followers
November 22, 2022
In the quiet hours of this morning, I turned the last page of this extraordinary and powerful book. It was so moving I found myself reading parts of it out loud to Mark while we had our morning coffee.

Harold Kushner is an American Rabbi who has written many books. This is the first one of his that I have read, and will be reading more. In this book, he grapples with the question of what matters most in life. He began the story with the Biblical account of Jacob as he wrestles with God and then evolves into a man of God as he deals with his conscience.

Throughout the book, he uses the story and imagery of Jacob, the stories of his congregate, literature, and society to grapple with the questions of what makes a life that matters. To name a few of the ideas, he discusses the concept of integrity, love, should we seek revenge, family and friends, and why we matter to the world. Even as I described this, I feel very short of the richness in this book. Its depth is so large and beautiful. It gives the reader much upon which to think.

Kushner is Jewish and brings to the book his faith as well as the understanding of other religious traditions. He also touches on all areas of life. This particular addition has a new afterward. Right after it has cost, 9/11 happened. He discusses this horrific event in the context of what he had written in his book.

This is a a book I will look to again. It's words are powerful. We all want to feel our lives matter. This book reminds us that we matter more than we can ever know. He speaks to the power of love and how/what we do for others as he quotes a Jackson Browne song "nothing survives/but the way we live our lives".

Even now I know I only captured a small part of this book with this review.

I would greatly enjoy reading this again with somebody else to discuss. If there's anybody in my community who's in reading it together please let me know, it would make for a great book study/discussion.
Profile Image for Aaron Mikulsky.
Author 2 books20 followers
February 1, 2021
As I was home in December 2020, after my mom’s death, I found this book in a pile of my mom’s papers. It must have been a sign. I needed this book. We all need this book. What a gem! After reading it, I was inspired to re-read Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. I noticed that Kushner wrote the foreword to it. It’s not odd, it’s God.
Kushner says, “this book is the product of many minds and hands. The years behind me far outnumber the years ahead.” Coincidently, this book was first published on September 4, 2001. We all know what happened a week later. We have learned much in the aftermath of 9-11. “If there is any good to be derived from the terrible events of September 2001, it may be the rediscovery of the power and importance of love.” As the Jackson Browne song says, “Nothing survives but the way we live our lives.”
The theme of the book is about the human need to know that we are important and the world takes us seriously. We need to be assured that we are good people. The small choices and decisions we make a hundred times a day add up to determining the kind of world we live in. We are put on earth to learn to love, and when we have done that, we have fulfilled our life’s mission. Faith is God begins where human self-sufficiency ends.

Read this book!
Profile Image for Mr..
84 reviews12 followers
March 7, 2019
Living a Life That Matters is a short treatise on, well, living a life that matters. Kushner references a wide range of intellectuals' views, from Plato and Rousseau to Jung and Dostoevsky. His insights were refreshing and empowering, offering unique perspectives on what it means to truly love and carry out our commitments to doing good. Although the overall theme of the book is a bit hackneyed, Kushner manages to suffuse each chapter with fair and thorough investigations into human nature. He describes good and evil as being inextricably part of our nature, advocating for the power of forgiveness not for the sake of the wrongdoer, but for the peace of mind of the victim. I enjoyed his understanding of why human beings truly desire revenge - to restore a sense of power and dignity to themselves, rather than to punish the person who harmed them. Each chapter was edifying; I felt that reading this book has encouraged me to take a step in the right direction. While Kushner tends to focus on his ideas a little too much, making the short book still a bit too long, I thought it was a worthwhile read for people who crave to find meaning and direction in their lives.
Profile Image for Linda Layne.
83 reviews
June 19, 2017
This is the first work written by Harold Kushner. I had heard of "Living a Life That Matters" and was looking forward to reading it. I would have to say that I appreciated the way that Rabbi Kushner used examples from the Bible, the Torah, and his conversations with people to emphasize points throughout the book.

I found him to be honest, to the point, yet not condemning, preachy, or self-righteous. I also greatly appreciated his sense of humor. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who had questions about our need to matter. Hopefully, they would find the author as sympathetic and warm as other readers. And more importantly, may they have the courage to step out of their comfort zone and see what they have to offer another human being and maybe in the process find out a little more about themselves.
Profile Image for Nio Nova Christiana.
26 reviews7 followers
August 31, 2020
This is one of Harold Kushner's book that is very fascinating, profound thoughts, and so founded.
This book gives enlightened people who try to find the meaning of life, ruling a role in the life that they are bestowed. I enjoy most parts of it despite some parts that give me an ''ambivalent'' and even an ambiguous sense. The part of words of Gods to Jeremiah and its supporting relevant story leaves me in hazy opposing thought. I may call my "expert" friend to discuss in this regard... haha.
Some parts really bring me into dear feelings, to the things that I or even some people may be in happenstance neglect that. Very insightful, and I will recommend this to read by all teens before they catch 20s.
1 review
March 27, 2019
I have picked this book up and read different parts so often. I finally sat down in 2019 and read it from start to finish. It has incredible lessons from shared stories of the Bible and other great reads with Kushner’s shared thoughts.
I will reread it now a lot. It will stay at my bedside because of its value to me to remember to always be kind and love others. It provides much needed lessons to share in small groups, with friends, in a Bible Study or church class.
I will go on to read Kushner’s other works now. Kushner shares truths of being human, living life and loving God.
Profile Image for Martin Young.
1 review1 follower
July 26, 2020
I Needed to Read This Today

At times in the past few weeks I have found myself very near despair. The onslaught of pandemic and ongoing (and ever escalating) divisiveness in political /cultural warfare left me feeling very alone, and --worse--that every value I have come to hold dear over the years was in fact a mirage at best, or at worst a con used to prey upon the weak and gullible. Reading this book has done more than anything else to help me find a way back to hope and sanity.
Profile Image for Stacy.
685 reviews
March 26, 2021
Spoiler alert: the advice is what you already know: that you can make a big difference through small actions and not even know it. Therefore, you must have integrity to guide your decisions, and faith that those decisions are paying dividends without you realizing it. There's a lot of spirituality and quite a few references to Biblical stories, which was a pleasant surprise. This books is not a Buzzfeed "10 best jobs for warm fuzzies!" list. It's more nuanced, richer in interpretation, and calls for humility and understanding that each tiny human is part of a much bigger picture.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for David Geschke.
Author 6 books11 followers
November 20, 2018
First book I’ve ever read by Harold Kushner. Fantastic. The first couple chapters sucked me in, and even though I was reading ten other books at the time this book took over as my main read right away. Bogged down a little in the middle, but so good beginning and at the end that I’m giving it five stars and highly recommending it to anyone interested in living a life of significance. And, that’s pretty much all of us, right?
Profile Image for lala.
2 reviews
September 21, 2020
“i see every human being as having good and bad tendencies, impulses to charity and impulses to charity and impulses to selfishness, to desire to be truthful and the desire to lie. that would explain why good people can be corrupted by the prospect of financial gain or led astray by anger, why criminals can display affection and loyalty."

being a decent human being is not about being kind all the time, there is time you can do bad things. and that's on being a human, and it's okay.
Profile Image for Dinh Hong.
217 reviews4 followers
November 2, 2020
As a habit, I love to randomly browse shelves of the library and pick any book that interests me. I'm so happy and enjoy to read Living a life that matters. Briefly, the book discussed all matters that human always tried to question, understand and practice in their life. With each issue, Harold told us stories, connection, suggested various clever, meaningful and thinkings. This is a great book. Everyone should have in their own library.
Profile Image for Jim Cullison.
467 reviews4 followers
April 3, 2022
Another entry in the Kushner Canon that is devoured in a single sitting, this meditation on the true meaning of success in life instantly attains a ranking of "Dog Eared Masterpiece," with countless number of pages dog eared by this reader for their significance, insight, and healing. Truly what I needed right now, and I'm sure I'll be referring back to it in the future. Highly recommended.

Rabbi Kushner never disappoints.
Profile Image for Ed Barton.
1,302 reviews
November 29, 2019
The book provides perspective on the meaning of life from the standpoint of accomplishment and purpose. Kushner provides tremendous insights on the role of the parent, the spouse, the child and the little things that make each of our lives have purpose and meaning. The stories are fantastic, as is the book as a whole. A great read.
Profile Image for Jennefer.
75 reviews
September 30, 2021
Loved how he used the story of Jacob in the New Testament to illustrate the human struggle each of us faces for goodness and transformation. Kushner gave me much to think about. I appreciated his insight and the way his writing left me feeling uplifted, motivated and reflective. It was a really nice read.
Profile Image for Toby Philpott.
82 reviews5 followers
October 23, 2018
A wonderful book

I’ve rarely read such books but this one certainly arrived at the right time in my life. The messages Rabbi Kutchner focuses on in this book are fundamental ones. How can we matter and how can we lead a good life. Well worth reading.
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