As we spend more time at home, I am grateful for the opportunity to catch a few more movies, a true luxury and distraction from thinking too much about what is going on outside the doors of our haven. These are my times taking a break from prayer, Zoom, encouraging others, from concern, and breaks from most of my time viscerally feeling enormous gratitude for those at the front in our hospitals tending to the gravely ill.
And so I take a break now and then with a good classic movie on the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) channel like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Charles Laughton(!) or “Self Made”, a Netflix offering based on the life of Madam C. J. Walker. As I watched her story, based on the biography On Her Own Ground by A’Leila Bundles, I learned a new way of thinking about self determination.
I have often shared with you a shift in my world view that happened after I became a believer in Yeshua. Raised in mainstream Judaism, with education as the highest calling by parents who raised themselves up from nothing to economic success, I felt that through hard work and determination, and education, we would succeed in life. God was part of it, but remotely above, providing His blessing if we were good people. The shift came dramatically as I later internalized the truth that all that we have are gifts from Him, all of our accomplishments are through Him, meant to serve Him, realized or not by our choices. I developed an attitude of gratitude that He has blessed me with abilities in the ways that He has.
C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America. She also was African American, born in 1867(!), and created her wealth developing and selling hair products particularly designed to work well with the hair of her race. As she motivated other black women to become financially independent as sellers of her product, her personal wealth grew enabling her to not only become a successful entrepreneur, but also, a major philanthropist and social activist as her influence grew. She knew no bounds and recognized no limitations in seeking recognition and financial independence for her people.
It is that last trait that sparked the new thoughts, ones especially relevant to our times as we live with Covid-19 in our daily consciousness. Her story, more than any I have ever known, is one of choice after choice that were all about self-determination. She was clearly a woman of the Lord, and yet, she was amazingly opinionated, stood up against all obstacles, knew what she wanted and went for it. She literally did seem to be the self made woman. She endured clear spiritual warfare as seemingly every time she had the opportunity for investors, something negative would thwart the deal. Yet she kept her cool (for the most part) and persevered. She stuck with her decisions, even to her financial detriment in some cases, for she saw a greater good. She made choices that not only grew her, but also, grew others.
Self determination is not a simple concept. Yes, our giftings are from God. Yes, we must remember to be grateful. The difference in Madam C. J. Walker’s case is that her overarching mindset was to make her life, and through her life, the lives of others, better. Each of her choices were to further goals that were not self-serving, but rather, of a higher calling. We see in her life that first she had to raise herself up, which could have just been seen as very much self-determination. Yet her life was so immersed in a higher calling, that even though His direction wasn’t at the forefront verbally or even consciously as she made each decision, it just was. She was so immersed in making life better for others that her self-determination, by definition, became living for others. And as challenges arose that could have taken her down more self-centered options, her heart and spirit knew the right way to go, to sacrifice self for the greater good.
We can play an instrument, or sing, and enjoy it for ourselves. Or we can think about sharing it with others to teach them or bring joy to them as well, raise up new musicians and singers. We can be proud of a recipe that comes out amazing, but what if when we were preparing it we were thinking of how much our family is going to enjoy it, thinking about the smiles. We can play a game and be motivated to win, or perhaps, find it just as enjoyable to be with others doing something fun together. We can be happy that we leined well after all of the hard work but be more deeply gratified knowing that our congregation was uplifted by the words and beauty of the reading. We can found a camp and feel a sense of accomplishment but be more deeply motivated to keep bringing campers closer to God.
As we make choices to social distance, stay at home, persevere, give to others, think outside the box for solutions, never give up, inspire others, I hope you, too, can feel His guidance in your choices. Understanding that self-determination is given to us as a gift from HaShem frames our world view. Making good choices creates the journey. Taking the “self” out of those determinations makes possible for all of us lives glorifying Him, perhaps not as impactful as the life of Madam C. J. Walker, but definitely lives lived in love of others.