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Relative Morality?

September 19, 2011

Relative Morality?

In a research study conducted by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, 230 young adults (18 to 23 year olds) from around the United States were asked in-depth questions about moral dilemmas and the differences between right and wrong. David Brooks recently discussed the study in his the New York Times column.  With the exception of the most heinous crimes, Brooks reports that “the default position most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’”

Smith calls this extreme moral individualism. Ethical decisions were seen as relative to individual judgment, which others should not judge.  This extended to such behaviors as cheating on tests or on a partner and drunk driving.

For centuries, great religions and philosophers have provided guidance on moral choices, many of which are embedded in legal codes.  Whether the ten commandants or the teachings of Plato, ethical bedrocks have been replaced in the minds of many young adults with nonjudgmental relative morality—relative to what feels right to each individual. To the degree this is accurate, the moral cohesive that binds our diverse culture together has been weakened.

What does this say about where we are going as a society? Does it reflect how well we have instilled core values in our children, as parents and teachers? What does this portend for the future and decisions and judgments made by emerging leaders who hold such beliefs?  If morality is relative to the individual, how can there be overriding ethical expectations for conducting our lives and our business? Is right and wrong truly dependent on individual judgment? I think not.

Brooks calls the study results depressing. Yet crime and immoral behavior among this demographic is not much different than that of past generations in that age range. So something is sticking. Can moral judgment be distinguished from moral behavior? How much of what’s been revealed in Smith’s study is a reflection of insufficient thought or mushy thinking rather than deeply held beliefs?  I don’t know the answer to that question.

I do not think we are devolving into a “Lord of the Flies” society.  But I do think now is a good time to ask ourselves, regardless of our age:  What do we truly believe about right and wrong?  What is moral and ethical?  Is morality relative?  If you believe so, then how much of it is?  What is subject to individual judgment and what is not?

Steve Weitzenkorn

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Creating Light and the Season for Doing

September 12, 2011

Creating Light and the Season for Doing

Robin recently wrote about bringing light into the world and how doing so is a moral obligation.  I was thinking about that while listening to a television commercial.  The advertisement was describing autumn as the “season for doing.”   That in turn got me thinking about ways all of us can take action to create more light.  Light to help people in need or in despair.  Light to serve as an example for others and create a greater good.  Light to guide our family, friends and colleagues.  Light to make our corner of the world a better place.  Light to enhance or restore relationships.

Imagine if each of us, every day, did at least one thing to brighten someone’s life or improve our world – in big ways or small. Imagine if the light within us was used more consistently and purposefully.  Imagine how doing so would add meaning and fuIfillment to our own lives.  Creating light is a life choice that creates a better future.

How are you creating light?  How can you turn on your high beams?  How can creating more light be integral to your season for doing?

Steve Weitzenkorn

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Light as a Moral Purpose

September 9, 2011

Light as a Moral Purpose

As I prepare for the High Holy Day season, beginning later this month with Rosh Hashanah, I contemplate myself and my life in an attempt to do better. This is what is demanded of Jews during the month before the Jewish New Year. The truth is, it is demanded of us every day, but our focus turns most fully to this as we make ourselves ready for a new start.

A tool that I have found very inspiring for the last several years is Jewels of Elul, a series of writings put together by musician Craig Taubman. I wrote of this last year, and as we are once again in the season, I want to share an inspiration with you that I received this year. Each year has a theme, and this year’s is The Art of Seeking Light. Fascinating enough that seeking light can be considered an art. Much like the heartisan, the one who seeks to better the world through the devotion of his or her heart, there can be an art to seeking light as well.

Rabbi Steven Lowenstein made a statement that has gotten me thinking:

“Bringing light into the world is as powerful a declaration of moral purpose as any act a human being can undertake. “

I wondered about the relationship between light and moral purpose. Each of us is born with light, each of us carries light. Sometimes we say of someone, “When she walks in, she lights up the room.” But what of light as a declaration of moral purpose? Perhaps what Rabbi Lowenstein is getting at is that it is great for us to bring our light when we want to, and for some it can even be fun, perhaps a social expression, but to continually choose to bring light into the world, particularly when those around us poo poo it, or when the times around us are dark, is reflective of a strong commitment to one’s morals and to ensuring that wherever one walks, so too does that moral conviction.

We all know of people who stamp on ideals, visions and dreams. We all know those who would rather we speak gossip with them than hold our tongue, or would rather see us join them in corruption instead of us doing what it right. Each time we make that choice, according to Lowenstein, we are bringing light into the world.

No matter what your faith or spiritual practice, I wish you renewal and light as we begin this fall season, and a hope that you can hold on to your light and radiate it strongly, particularly this weekend as we remember the people and events of 9/11/2001.

Robin Damsky

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Saying Goodbye with Dignity and Honor

September 5, 2011

Saying Goodbye with Dignity and Honor

Labor Day weekend is the occasion of the Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon.   For forty-six years it had been hosted by Jerry Lewis, who also served as chairman.  This year, the MDA abruptly switched formats and Jerry Lewis was out.  Over the years, he helped MDA raise over $1 billion.  His unceremonious “retirement” made me think about how we say goodbye to people, and how we can do so with dignity and honor.

Jerry Lewis is a comedian with a big heart.  How could MDA have handled this better, with a heart equally as big?  It could have said farewell by honoring him, bringing back guests who have joined him on the telethon, and offered testimonials recognizing his enduring commitment and contributions.  Instead the new hosts, absent Lewis, offered a couple platitudes.

How do you say goodbye to people?  What do you do when a relationship is over or has run its course and you wish to make a change?   Is it filed with acrimony?  Are people hurt?  Is it done with sensitivity?  Is the relationship and what it meant over time honored?  Or is it dismissed?  How we say goodbye says a lot about who we are and our values.

How do organizations with which you may be associated say goodbye?  For example, when someone is laid-off, a contract not renewed, or a major change is made.  What values does it display?  It may be true that nobody is indispensible, but how we treat them at the end can leave a lasting, sometimes stinging impression.  How we say goodbye speaks volumes about us.

Our times are difficult enough that we need not add indignity and unnecessary pain to what may by its nature be a hurtful situation or decision.

When you feel compelled or need to, how can you say goodbye to people in a way that demonstrates respect and dignity, and preserves their sense of self-worth?

Steve Weitzenkorn

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Paying it Backward, Paying it Forward

August 26, 2011

Repost: Paying it Backward, Paying it Forward:

The concept of paying forward a good deed is familiar to us. It was brought to light beautifully in the film that coined the term, Pay it Forward, starring Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. The premise is to do something for three people that makes a positive difference in each of their lives. The recipient of the good will then goes on to offer their service to three others. It is a loving, foundational concept in affecting the world for the better; to receive someone’s good intentions and pass it on times three.

But what of paying it backward? What of being the recipient of someone’s gifts – their time, wisdom, and energy – and acknowledging them for the difference they made in your life? Are we cognizant of the “thank yous” that we need to say to people who made an impact in our lives? I was speaking with a friend about some of the people who played a significant role in helping us to develop into the people we are today; people without whom our lives would have taken very different paths that would have been less rich and fulfilling than they are now. We spoke of the fact that some of those people do not know how significant they have been in helping to shape us and affect our lives for the better.

I imagine that all of us have at least one person in our lives that has played such a role. It may have been a college professor or a teacher from your earlier years. Perhaps it is one or both of your parents. You may have a friend who was there when you needed him or her.  Maybe you were inspired by a spiritual leader, or a colleague at work or in your professional field. It might have been someone you knew well or met only once. Who are these people? Have you taken time to identify them? If they don’t know of the impact they had on you, this is a great time to tell them.

A while back I wrote two blogs acknowledging one of my former teachers, Angela Thoburn, who was incredibly instrumental in guiding me to establish a foundation and path for my life. It had been twenty years since we had been in touch, but in writing those blogs I felt it important to invite her to read them so she would know of the difference she made in my life. It was my way of saying, “Thank you” to her. Since we had both moved since we had seen each other, I had to find her first. I didn’t know if the contact information I had for her was current, but I gave it a shot. It turned out that my communication reached her, and she responded with such appreciation for the acknowledgment. So often in life we go without knowing where we have made a contribution. We all need to know that we have made a difference.

It gets me thinking that there are other people I need to seek out so I can say, “Thank you.”  You may be thinking the same thing. You may not have approached those individuals because you hadn’t thought of it. Or, you may be overcome with excusitis, finding yourself ruminating in the following thoughts:

  • How will I find them?
  • What if they don’t remember me?
  • We had a falling out. I don’t know how I feel about opening that door again.
  • Oh my goodness, this is embarrassing. I have been out of touch for so many years.
  • I am not so comfortable expressing my feelings.

My experience is that the response you receive will be one of gratitude and appreciation. You will recognize that your action is giving a gift back to someone who has given one to you: paying it backward. It may guide you to think, “Gee, why did I wait so long to do this? It was so great to connect and to share my deep thanks.” And the gift continues to give to you both.

There are some people to whom we cannot express our thanks. The individual is no longer alive or the situation makes it impossible to seek them out. In cases like this, we can still acknowledge the source of the gifts in our lives, but instead of paying it backward to the source, we can pay it forward to someone else, or better yet, to three others. Perhaps there are family members of the one who touched your life that you can approach. Or you can take the tact of Pay it Forward’s Trevor McKinney and find a way to pass on the gift that you have been given to others entirely.

Whether you are paying it backward or paying it forward, you will simultaneously make a personal acknowledgment to an individual who made a difference in your life, while you continue to make an impact for good in the world around you.

Robin Damsky

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Leadership and Accountability

August 24, 2011

Leadership and Accountability

Guest Post by Edith Luc

For many, being a leader means to be popular, to be admired by others and even to become a model for success stories. However, the true implications of a leader involve being completely responsible for successes and failures and acknowledging and assuming the responsibility for the consequences of actions, decisions, policies and commitments. Leadership and accountability are two sides of the same coin.

The duty of being accountable is linked to the leader and his/her duty to assume the responsibility and to be answerable for both positive and negative consequences and outcomes. The leader does not delegate the responsibility to others, to the past, to ignorance (by claiming to have been misinformed) or to put the blame on any other reason.

The CEO or figurehead of authority represents and is responsible for the entire company: its financial performance, the quality of the resources, products and services, the partnerships, employee health and security and the social and ethical responsibilities to name a few. He/she needs to be surrounded with colleagues of high quality and integrity and that can assume their share of the responsibilities. The technicians, professionals, managers, the clientele representatives who are responsible for providing the best possible service to clients (efficient and respectful answers and within a reasonable delay) or any other individual within an organization is expected to be accountable within their scope of the role and responsibility.

These past weeks in the news, I noticed two cases that demonstrate different levels of accountability by figureheads of authority. The first one is inspired by the current state of the roads and bridges in Quebec and is an example of a lack of accountability by political leaders. The second case involves the decision made by a President towards his clients following an incident caused by a crisis in management. This last case demonstrates an impeccably assumed accountability on the part of the figurehead of authority.

The case of the road incidents in Montreal: The opposite of accountability?!

A few weeks ago, a block of cement from a bridge collapsed on one of Montreal’s main highways that passed through the city center. Fortunately no one was injured. This incident is one of the many manifestations of the city’s crumbling infrastructures and it sparked many comments from the political leaders that were directly and indirectly involved in the crisis. I have put forward a few of these comments for you to decide whether or not these are demonstrations of accountability by the figureheads of authority involved in the problem.

  • The Mayor of Montreal, Mr. Tremblay repeatedly assured his citizens that the City would insure their security and that he was personally collaborating with the Ministry of Transportation to resolve problems. He added that he had been working very hard for the past ten years to solve these problems.  (The duty of accountability is to assume the results of a situation and not to remind others of the efforts made.)
  • “We are regularly inspecting infrastructures.” (The Ministry of Transportation of Quebec)
  • According to Sam Hamad, the Minister of Transport, the Ministry was encouraged to take concrete actions to solve the problem following the recommendations by the construction firm SNC Lavallin.  (Since 2008, the Ministry of Transportation of Quebec was not able to find any contracts for the solidification of the Ville-Marie Tunnel).
  • The Ministry of Transportation blames a private contractor to have weakened the supporting structure that reduced the glare for drivers entering the tunnel.
  • “We begin to take action the instant there is a feeling that public security is being threatened. Money is not an issue when it comes to the security of the people.”
  • The Bloc Québécois denounce the inactivity of the Charest government in the administration of Montreal’s roads.

In the case of the Montreal road incidents, the political leaders are examples of figureheads of authority ignoring their duty of accountability. They promise that measures will be or are being taken to solve the problem; they put the blame on others, on the consequences, on the lack of resources or the mistakes of predecessors instead of admitting their own mistakes. Being accountable is to feel and assume the responsibility for the consequences, the efforts made or the lack of efforts made. The duty of accountability is to know when to admit and to acknowledge a failure.

Those who are responsible for a problem are automatically accountable even if they did not cause it!

The case of the online company Airbnb.

This case demonstrates an assumed accountability by the President of Airbnb, an online company connecting people that are searching for a short, medium or long term accommodation with owners who are looking to rent out their home.

In the month of June 2011, the home of a host was vandalized by a guest that had rented the accommodation through the services of Airbnb. The weeks following the incident, the co-founder and President, Brian Chesky wrote a letter to his clients apologizing for the poor management of the situation and admitting that the company did not assume its responsibilities during the crisis. However, he quickly made sure that the problem would not reproduce itself by applying the appropriate actions.

Here is a part of the email that was sent to all Airbnb service users. The displays of accountability are emphasized by the bold text:


Last month, the home of a San Francisco host named EJ was tragically vandalized by a guest. The damage was so bad that her life was turned upside down. When we learned of this our hearts sank. We felt paralyzed, and over the last four weeks, we have really screwed things up. Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post trying to explain the situation, but it didn’t reflect my true feelings. So here we go.

There have been a lot of questions swirling around, and I would like to apologize and set the record straight in my own words. In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.

With regards to EJ, we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive actions to make sure she felt safe and secure. But we weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we’re dealing with the consequences. In working with the San Francisco Police Department, we are happy to say a suspect is now in custody. Even so, we realize that we have disappointed the community. To EJ, and all the other hosts who have had bad experiences, we know you deserve better from us.

We want to make it right. On August 15th, we will be implementing a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, protecting the property of hosts from damage by Airbnb guests who book reservations through our website.

Other measures are also being implemented, these include: a 24-hour customer hotline, twice as many employees in the customer support team, the establishment of a new department dedicated to trust and safety and the ability to directly contact the CEO at

 Thank you for being part of Airbnb.


Brian Chesky
CEO, Co-founder

In the message, M. Chesky completely recognizes his responsibility in the incident even though he was not the direct cause of it. He apologizes to the victim and to all the company’s users, whether or not they have been victims of vandalism. He also openly acknowledges and identifies the flaws in his organization and presents measures that are and that will be implemented to improve his company for the benefit of every individual. Mr. Chesky recognizes his accountability towards his clients, employees and the San Francisco community.

The political leader or CEO’s accountability is highlighted by the following behaviors:

  1. By recognizing the mistake and authentically apologizing for it.
  2. By recognizing the consequences and those affected in the process.
  3. By concentrating efforts on actions to be taken rather than on finding excuses, apologizing or lingering on the initial emotions of deception or on the individuals affected by the consequences.
  4. By presenting the actions that will be taken to fix the situation and to prevent it from being reproduced.
  5. By speaking of the problem in the first person and not by hiding behind the “we” of the organization or by putting the blame on others.

The ability for a leader to authentically acknowledge and assume their accountability in a situation inspires confidence and encourages the search for solutions. The opposite of accountability is when the individual responsible discharges their responsibility on others and blames the consequence on the circumstances. This wears down the confidence in the leader and can create a lack of mobilization for the solving of the problem. The duty of accountability is valid for successes as well. Sharing successes with colleagues and collaborators can develop a sense of collective efficiency within the organization.


The duty of accountability can be a synonym for leadership. The two cases above demonstrate that accountability is an essential quality of those who put their leadership into practice. The leader needs to recognize his/her accountability in the practice of leadership and his/her responsibility for the consequences of the decisions made, the actions implemented and the commitments taken within their team or organization.

Edith Luc

 A Ph.D. Graduate of the University of Montreal, Edith Luc specializes in leadership and management development and intercultural management. Her practice targets the development of competencies through the capitalization of leadership and diversity. You can read more of her works on her blog: http:// 

© 2011 Edith Luc, All Rights Reserved

Authenticity . . . and Makeup

August 22, 2011


Authenticity is about being genuine and presenting yourself for who you really are.  I’ve been thinking about this since I returned from vacation in Breckenridge, Colorado.  Breckenridge is an old gold mining town that reinvented itself in the 1960s as a ski resort.  Many of the old structures along Main Street date to the late 1800s and the community is committed to historic preservation.   At an elevation of 9,600 feet and with peaks approaching 14,000 feet, the air is thin and most of the people on the streets are tourists.

My wife observed that very few of the women were wearing makeup, which contrasted with many other places we have vacationed.   Breckenridge has a laid back atmosphere and appeals to middle-class families, young adults, and retired people.  Very few seemed to be putting on airs.  People seemed to just want to relax, let their hair down, and get away from the hectic lives they live elsewhere, including the people who work there.  It’s like a haven for just being yourself.

These perceptions kept bringing me back to my wife’s observation about makeup.  I appreciate as much as anyone how makeup enhances one’s physical appearance, reflects personal pride and a desire to be at one’s best.  It also may help some feel better about themselves.  It also occurred that there is another kind of makeup.  It’s the appearance people often put forward to create false impressions – to present themselves as something other than who they really are.  We may do it at work, with friends, with family, with anyone we are trying to impress; and perhaps at times we believe being our authentic selves won’t be sufficient.  There is a feeling that sometimes we need to be someone other than who we truly are.

Do you find that for yourself?  That you are pretending?  That you have put makeup on your persona?  That you are not being your true self, for whatever reason?

When you catch yourself in those moments, stop and ask, “Who am I really and is my presentation of myself aligned with it?  Live your beliefs and intentions.  That’s authenticity.  That’s personal integrity.

Steve Weitzenkorn

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Breathing Under Water

August 19, 2011

Breathing Under Water

My dear friend recently told me that she had had a dream that she was under water swimming, and she was able to breathe. No snorkeling gear, no scuba tanks, not even gillyweed (for you Harry Potter fans), she was simply able to breathe under water. She was swimming around with ease and freedom, enjoying the fish, coral, ocean plants and the water itself. She was feeling completely joyful and at peace. I told her I have had dreams like this myself.

The context in which she told me this dream, however, is what was most interesting. Her days are filled with challenges right now, difficult to overcome. While it isn’t as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, each day brings the question of when it will end, and how will she manage in the meantime. She asked me for guidance. She asked me for insight; she asked me for help.

I thought how fascinating it was that in the midst of trials that she can’t see or breathe through, that she had a dream about breathing under water, and I pointed this out to her. She was confused. I told her, “Your answer is simple. You must breathe under water.”

Each of us has challenges in life that sometimes seem insurmountable. The number of people who are facing financial difficulties due to loss of their job or business, cuts in wages or hours, or simply due to lack of clientele is staggering. Others of us have people we love who are facing chronic or even fatal illness. Still others are in relationships – whether business or personal – that demand all they have and seem to be shy on return. And you know as well as I do that the list of crises and issues we deal with goes on. What is the answer? It was in my friend’s dream: breathe under water.

What this means to me is that we have the capacity to survive, and even thrive and rejoice, in situations that seem as foreign to us as living under water without any breathing apparatus. Inside of our chemistry is the wisdom to flow under even the most difficult of circumstances. At first blush this may sound preposterous, but if you think about it, there are individuals who walk with difficulty in their lives and maintain their aplomb and even grace, just as there are those who feel tackled by their circumstances. Perhaps they have access to a Zen practice that helps them to keep their balance. Perhaps they are recognizing that the tools they use on a daily basis to survive simply won’t be effective in the current circumstances, and so they reach within for their inner gills, if you will, and find a way of approaching the situation that is not their norm.

Maybe the effective response calls for creativity. Maybe it calls for faith in something we can’t see. Maybe it calls for a deep reach into the reservoir of our human capacity. In any case, our human potential and ability are much greater than we often realize and give ourselves credit for. If we can step out of the paradigm that is our norm, we may find that we, too, can find ways to respond to the limitations and issues that face us that seem impossible to transcend, and find in them the same freedom we would feel if we were breathing, naturally and easily, gorgeously thriving, under water.

Robin Damsky

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The Best Predictor of Future Behavior

August 8, 2011

The Best Predictor of Future Behavior

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  This is a well-researched and proven behavioral principle.  It’s a great guide for anticipating how someone might react to a situation, challenging question, or problem.  Including ourselves.  If we want to change, that means that we must make a very deliberate and sustained effort to accomplish what we desire.  Otherwise, we will fall into old behavior patterns which will produce similar outcomes to those of the past.

We must be deliberate because we need to catch ourselves from lapsing into our traditional and now automatic responses before they reoccur.  Those reactions and behaviors usually become ingrained and we do them without thinking.  To override them, we must consciously engage in new behaviors which are not yet intuitive.  They may actually be counterintuitive at first.

To override old behavior paths and blaze new ones, we must walk the new path repeatedly.  That’s how we can supersede our historical behavior patterns and replace them with the new ones.  The new ones need to gain strength and familiarity, and demonstrate they lead to more satisfactory outcomes.  It may take some time and deliberate effort before our new behavior patterns become strong enough to change our old impulses. Repeated practice is essential. Even once the new behavior pattern is established, we must continually guard against falling back into the old one, because that path does not disappear right away.  It is still there and familiar and it will take time before disuse will significantly weaken it.  With sustained effort, it will eventually lose much of its power and recede in our behavioral repertoire.

The good news is that change and personal improvement is possible.  It usually requires work to bring about and it is not a linear path.  Most of us cannot change like flipping a switch.  We will have our successes and setbacks.  By continually working on change we desire, and compensating for the times we relapse into old undesirable behaviors, we can breakthrough to become more like the person we want to be.

What changes are you working on?  What new paths are you trying to blaze?  How can you prevent sliding back into old behaviors?  How can you recover when you do?  How can you heighten your success?

Steve Weitzenkorn

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Where is God?

August 5, 2011

Where is God?

Often people ask me where God is: Where was God in Japan’s recent tsunami, or in Hurricane Katrina? Where is God in my husband’s death or in my son’s recent diagnosis of leukemia? Where was God when my wife was cheating on me? Or where is God when millions of people suffer with hunger, lack of education or disease?

Each of these questions gets at our inability to understand tragedy and evil. We want to believe that if there is a God, and God believes in good, that God would only allow good things to happen. While there may be faith traditions that would ascribe to this approach, Judaism does not. Judaism teaches that God encompasses all. Additionally, God made humans to be God’s partners in making this world whole and loving, and God created humans with free choice. We are therefore able to choose to do good works or bad, those that heal or those that harm.

While there are many faith leaders in various religions that would say that evil, tragedy and horror are God’s punishment of us for our transgressions, this too can be seriously problematic. It is not a paradigm nor a theology that I can get behind.

What then, do we make of crises, illness beyond our control, tragedy or natural disasters? Rather than ask where God was when these were taking place, we can focus on how we can help. We can reach out to those who experience trauma and loss. We can offer comfort to one who is ill or who just lost a loved one. We can rebuild where disaster has torn down, send food and medicine where there is none to be had. We can join our hands to dig people out of life threatening situations and set them on firm ground until they can once again take care of their own needs. This is where God can be found. In every outstretched hand, in every smiling face, in every financial contribution, in every offered service, God appears. God is present as we work to bring solace and relief, as we use the love in our hearts to help another human being.

I had a teacher once who said that sometimes we ask the wrong question. Rather than ask, “Where was God when the tragedy occurred?” let us ask, “How can I be the messenger of good will in this crisis?” and in so doing, bring God’s light forward in the world.

Robin Damsky

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