Ralph Mahana, is, in one word, inspirational. In a few more words, he is someone who has identified his purpose in life as the effort to make people feel good, a role for which he is uniquely suited.
As a child, Ralph was diagnosed with muscular disease which left him unable to walk, and impacted his coordination skills. This kind of disability would have crushed the spirits of the vast majority of people, myself included. But not Ralph. He refused to fall into self-pity. And he decided to share his remarkable story with the world by publishing a book under the title, Very Good, a dream whose realization was made possible by Artscroll publications, thanks the efforts of the company’s president, Rabbi Gedaliah Zlotowitz.
I was given the great privilege to meet Ralph for the purpose of interviewing him for this article. But I had the even greater privilege of seeing this “interview” evolve into a lengthy, fascinating discussion touching on a variety of topics, including the book, Ralph’s day-to-day life, his Torah learning, and his thoughts on the war in Israel. The interview was scheduled in advance for Oct. 12th, less than a week after Hamas’ barbaric assault on our brothers and sisters in Israel. I figured – correctly – that as someone who has dealt with adversity for most of his life, Ralph would have unique insight and perspective on the current crisis faced by the Jewish People.
A Lifelong Battle
After speaking together for a few minutes, we finally got to the first question that I had prepared – a question about Ralph’s book: why he titled it Very Good. I wondered how he could possibly describe his difficult ordeals as “very good.”
He explained that people generally view their struggles as an unwanted burden, and so they just complain about them. By choosing the title Very Good, Ralph sought to teach us how to look at the bright side of every situation, to take note of the benefits that we receive from even life’s more challenging moments. This perspective will help people accept their struggles without bitterness and resentment, and live happy, fulfilling lives despite the hardships that come their way.
Ralph revealed to me the challenge he faced writing this book. Just 83 pages long, it took him five years to compose – because, unable to type, Ralph needed to dictate the entire text, word for word.
I thought to myself: writing a book is hard enough – imagine having to speak a book! But with the help of Michael Franco, he got it done. The fact that Very Good came into being is a testament to Ralph’s determination, and the importance he accorded this project.
I asked Ralph to explain a little more about why this undertaking was so important to him. He replied that he is good at making others feel good about themselves, and he wanted to share this inspirational power with others. He sees lots of suffering throughout the world, people facing hardships, and he wants to do what he can to help them cope and push onwards.
This push, as Ralph describes, is a lifelong battle, one which he himself occasionally had trouble fighting. He openly admits that despite his fierce determination, he sometimes finds it difficult to cope.
Once, Ralph relates, he went to a Barnes & Noble bookstore looking for some self-help books to try and help himself, as he was not feeling particularly strong at the time. After spending some time browsing, he realized that he would not find there the strength he was looking for. This strength, he understood, would be found in the Torah.
He left the store, went to a shul, and picked up a Gemara, Masechet Kiddushin. He spent hours learning. Ralph says that learning Torah helps him feel good and alleviate his pain. From his own experience, he has determined that the Torah is the answer. Learning can help us get through the dark moments in our lives, when everything seems hopeless. When we feel gloomy, the fire of Torah can lift our spirits and give us the strength we need to keep going, to keep achieving, to keep striving to make this world a better place, each of us in his or her own unique way.
It quickly became clear that Gemara was Ralph’s favorite subject. The intricate, complex discussions of the Talmudic sages allow him – as it does for so many others – to truly connect with Gd. I found his passion for Gemara very inspiring. Although I had always liked learning Gemara, I can’t say that I had loved it. But after listening to Ralph speak of what Gemara learning does for him, I went home and opened my Masechet Shabbat which I had tried going through long ago. Thanks to Ralph, who reignited my love for Gemara, I am still learning it regularly.
Not Letting Life Pass By
I then asked Ralph about his day-to-day life, what his schedule was like, and how he spends his spare time.
He replied that in addition to learning, he loves nature and the outdoors. He frequently goes on walks, and enjoys closing his eyes outside, relaxing and enjoying the tranquility of nature. Ralph describes this as a meditative practice, calling it “sensory focus,” turning his attention away from what he does not have, from his problems and struggles, and onto everything he does have, on all that he should be grateful for. Although he has difficulty moving and speaking, nevertheless, by closing his eyes and directing his focus onto his blessings, he is able to experience happiness and contentment.
Ralph says about this technique: “When a person lets life pass him by, he is not able to absorb it.”
Too many of us “let life pass by.” We fail to enjoy our blessings, because we are so busy and focused on trying to attain what we do not have, that we cannot enjoy all that we do have. Life happens, but we aren’t absorbing our experiences, because our minds are directed toward the things that we lack. Taking time to focus on our blessings helps us feel genuine contentment, and fully experience our lives. Hashem has given all of us so much, no matter what struggles we face. By focusing on and enjoying what we have, we can always feel happy, regardless of the challenges we are dealing with.
The Key Ingredient
Ralph and I spoke of our feelings in response the horrific terror attacks in Israel, which shook us both – and, of course, everyone else – to our core. Ralph was initially reluctant to offer insight on this subject, feeling it was not his place to console or offer advice to those enduring unimaginable pain and sorrow, and who have lost so much. Eventually, however, he relented.
He humbly suggested that the most important thing people could do, especially after such a horrific tragedy, is to place their trust in Hashem. Bitahon (trust in Gd) is the key ingredient for getting through periods of hardship. In times of joy and success, bitahon helps a person maintain his humility, as he recognizes that the blessings he enjoys are the result not of his work or ingenuity, but rather of Gd’s grace and providence. In times of adversity, bitahon helps a person cope by reminding him that everything Hashem does is to his benefit, even when he cannot possibly understand how, and that even the pain he experiences as part of Hashem’s plan. This concept finds expression in the recitation of “Baruch Dayan ha’emet” upon hearing of somebody’s passing. This declaration means “Blessed is the true Judge,” proclaiming our unwavering faith in Gd’s justice and kindness even when life seems harsh and unfair.
It would be hard to find a more inspirational figure than Ralph Mahana, or a more inspirational story then the struggle he has waged for much of his life. Confined to a wheelchair, Ralph battles each and every day against his physical handicaps, refusing to surrender to despair. He has done us all a great service by sharing with us his story and his strategies for overcoming life’s challenges, for persevering, for how to emerge from adversity stronger that we ever were before. He shows us that no matter what is happening, life can be Very Good, if we are willing to open our minds to see just how good it is, and to put in the work to make it even better.
Very Good speaks to people of all ages, and is a great read for all. It presents a treasure-trove of wisdom for those who, like Ralph, find themselves struggling with hardship, and, no less importantly, for those who, fortunately, are not, bringing them greater awareness of, and appreciation for, the countless blessings that they enjoy.