Elizabeth Brenner Danziger

‘What can I do to make your life easier today?’

Friendly expression. (iStock)

Today, I went to the pharmacy and asked if my prescription was ready. I needed the ear infection medication urgently so that I would be able to fly to a business engagement. Looking harried, the pharmacist said that she was alone in the pharmacy and that it would be ready in 15 minutes. I sat down to wait. After about five minutes, she said it was ready. Making conversation, I asked her if her staff had called in sick, and she replied, “Sometimes they don’t even call in.” She looked stressed and weary. I realized that she had done me a favor to fast-track my pills under challenging circumstances, so I asked her, “What can I do to make your life easier today?” Surprised, she said, “Nothing, I’m fine.” But the light had come back into her eyes, and she was smiling. As I walked away, I realized that I had made her life easier just by asking her that question.

Big-picture problems plague the planet: war, climate change, divisive elections. There’s not a lot any of us can do to improve those situations. Unless we hold positions of institutional influence, we feel powerless to combat the world’s evils. But we can, as the Torah teaches us, focus on our “4 four amos.” An “ama” is a measure of about an arm’s length. Our “four amos” is the area a few arms’ lengths around our own body: It is our sphere of influence and the lives we touch within it.

Without forgetting that there is a bigger world, we can intentionally set out to bring peace and light to our interactions with the people around us, whether they are family members, retail clerks, baristas, work colleagues, or strangers on the street. Starting from right where we are, we can radiate acts of chesed, or lovingkindness in our four amos.

We can start small, say, with a smile. The Talmud says of Yochanan ben Zakkai, the greatest rabbi of his generation, that “no one greeted him first, even the Gentile in the marketplace.” because he always greeted them first. Seeing every person as a reflection of God’s image, he greeted them pleasantly as soon as he saw them. This idea is elaborated in Pirkei Avos, the teachings of the Sages, where we are enjoined to greet everyone we meet with a friendly expression.

If we want to go a step further, we can actively look for reasons to say something sunny. The person checking out your groceries could have called in sick today, but they didn’t. You can thank them for being at the store to help you. Your spouse is wearing something that suits them. Tell them so. You know your colleague worked hard on a presentation – ask them how it went.

Focusing on our “four amos” puts our attention on things we can control. I try not to worry about situations where I have no control; this is challenging, but it prevents me from ruminating about world events that I can do nothing about. I ask myself, “What can I do with the tools I have?” Maybe I will donate money or write to an elected representative. Perhaps I can make a meal for a sick person or call someone lonely. Or maybe I can observe someone in distress and ask them, “How can I make your life easier today?”

Even the greatest social and political changes begin with individual people exerting influence on their immediate sphere. By focusing on our own zone of influence, our four amos, we keep from feeling overwhelmed by world events and take responsibility for the place where we can make a difference in the lives of others: right here and right now.

About the Author
Elizabeth Brenner Danziger is the author of four books, including Winning by Letting Go (Harcourt Brace: 1985) and Get to the Point! (Random House: 2001). Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is the president of Worktalk Communications Consulting. She has four grown children and many grandchildren. She has been living an observant Jewish life for 40 years.
Related Topics
Related Posts