Reviewed by Robert L. Dibble
Surprises of real joy are often too infrequent experiences for most of us. Here’s a genuine one: while continuing their cleaning and organizing of Ed Friedman’s personal effects after his death in 1996, his son and daughter accidently discovered a file drawer full of previously unpublished papers: diaries, sermons, articles. That serendipitous discovery is to our collective benefit, for reading What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? by Edwin Friedman, is an absolute pleasure. It captures vintage Friedman: his hopes and dreams as a young “rabbi in training,” his signature wit and playfulness (especially in his “An Interview with God”), his insights–both seminal and more fully developed–of family systems thinking, his sage counsel to young couples as he preaches on marriage as music, his straight to the heart of human growth and relationships found in his baccalaureate addresses to students or his reflections on a visit to his parents grave. All of this, and more, reveal a delightful side of this rabbi, teacher, therapist, and leadership coach. Friedman’s 1985 ground-breaking work, Generation to Generation, has become a modern classic.
In the book, Friedman applied the thinking of Bowen Family Systems Theory to congregational leadership. He caused a revolution in viewing human relationships as exposing the emotional processes involved in relating in families and working in religious, educational, therapeutic, and business systems. His acclaimed work and posthumous publication of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, furthers his understandings on leadership. After his untimely death, Friedman’s daughter Shira Bogart edited a collection of her father’s favorite essays under the fanciful title, The Myth of the Shiksa and Other Essays. This present publication, also edited by her, as well as Margaret Treadwell and Cynthia Shattuck, provides something for everyone who has admired this great man’s life and respected his profound thinking and teaching.
What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? is organized around the stages of life, the “rites of passage,” one experiences on the journey from young adulthood to maturity and death. Part One: Starting Out, is directly targeted at youth. In fact, the title of the book is drawn from one of Friedman’s baccalaureate addresses to young people facing the transitions to adulthood. But this section’s real treasure is “A Reason for Living,” a portion of Friedman’s diary which chronicles his first year in rabbinical school.
Revealed here is a man longing for love and commitment and struggling with his chosen vocation. His Jewish faith becomes for him an avenue to give full expression to his passions. Three lovely wedding homilies conclude this section. Part Two: The Challenges of Maturity, contains an essay, “The Joy of Discovery,” in which Friedman’s early thoughts on adventure, risk-taking and leadership are discussed. These prescient ideas find more mature expression in the beginning chapters of A Failure of Nerve. Other essays in the section explore family dynamics at key rites of passage.
I found fascinating Friedman’s thoughts about the life-affecting, transitional processes of divorce, geographical mobility, and retirement. Part Three: Accepting Mortality, is the final section and worth the price of the book. Here, through his reflections on his own mortality and his dealing with his own family of origin, you learn more about the man, Ed Friedman. He puts his “money where his mouth is,” or his theories into practice in two wonderfully written chapters, “How to Get Your Parents into a Nursing Home” and “Old Age: Condition or Diagnosis.” These essays, too, expose the “whither and whence” of Ed’s frequent criticisms/challenges of the helping professions. The most poignant essay of the section is “Between Two Cemeteries.” Visits to family members’ graves conjures deep, fond memories, the assessments of which have a powerful effect in shaping his self-understanding. You, the reader, may discover a similar effect.
So, what’s the bottom line? What Are You Going to Do with Your Life? is an essential reader for those seeking life-changing insights. Some of these insights will be subtle; some will “hit you between the eyes!” Regardless, you come away with a better understanding of a great man full of humor, wisdom, and possessing an especially delightful deviousness. You will not be disappointed in adding this book to the growing corpus of Friedman’s writings that should occupy a prominent place in your library. We are indebted to his family for proving once again that there is “life after death.” Douglas Ort says it even better: “Taken as a body, Ed Friedman’s work is perhaps the most creative contribution of any 20th century writer on how leadership works (or doesn’t). If one wishes to truly understand self in terms of families, organizations, religious groups, or politics, one must invariably reckon with Ed Friedman. Period.”
Until 2016 Robert Dibble was the coordinator of the Leadership in Ministry workshops.