More than a quarter century ago, I met a plump, henna-haired woman named Elen who’d been born in Bethlehem. We commuted from Ann Arbor to the International Institute of Detroit. The hour-long trips in each direction provided a bit of micro-detente as we discussed Israeli-Palestinian relations, the similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam.
When she was fourteen, Elen married a man more than thirty years her senior. At that time, she neither read nor wrote. Her mission in life was to serve her husband, have babies and take care of them, cook and clean. When her family immigrated to the U.S., she was still illiterate.
But American culture seeped into her bones. Elen decided that someday she wanted to work outside the home, to bring money in, and to help provide for her sons’ education. Though she only broached the subject once or twice with her husband, his response was extreme and negative.
Elen didn’t give up.
Quietly, in her twenties, Elen taught herself to read and write. In her early thirties, she passed her GED. She started taking college courses. At all times, Elen did everything her family expected her to do, putting her husband’s and sons’ needs before her own. Still, little by little, step by step, she earned her BA.
When we first met, Elen was in her forties and working toward an MSW. Her speciality involved helping the Chaldean population in Detroit. Somehow, after more than thirty years, she’d worn down her husband enough to openly pursue her career.
When she first told me her story, I was appalled and demanded, "How could you stand it?"
"Pari, I’m like a river," she said without a hint of regret or anger. "My husband is a rock blocking my path. With time, I carve away all his objections and flow freely."
Though she never thought of herself as exceptional, I believe Elen’s story is a shining example of perseverance and practicality set against daunting odds. It demonstrates an astounding ability to keep goals in mind no matter what pitfalls or discouragements may try to undermine individual resolve.
All of us — writers, businesspeople, artists, parents — can learn from her story.
So, the next time whining, or self-pity, knocks at your consciousness, I’d ask you to remember Elen. Her path wasn’t just about a career. She had to change a man whose entire life and culture rejected what she wanted.
So can we all